Sarah could hear a baby crying somewhere in the large white room as she searched frantically for a recognizable face. She was exhausted in a way she had never before experienced but still she was not ready to allow herself to sleep, not yet anyway. She wanted to talk to Tim and she wanted to hold her newborn child. She would sleep later.
Finally Tim was standing in front of her smiling and looking as tired as she felt.
“Here she is” Tim said, handing Sarah her daughter for the first time, “and she’s every bit as as beautiful as you are.”
Tears began to roll gently down Sarah’s face as she looked into the crying baby’s eyes.
“More beautiful, I think” Sarah mumbled to no one in particular letting her own tears drip off her face and mingle with the tears of the minutes old child.
“So what’s her name?” Tim asked, tentatively bringing up the subject that they had been unable to agree on despite the fast approaching deadline.
Sarah saw a strange mix of joy and exhaustion in Tim’s face. He will be an excellent father she thought, I just hope I am as good of a mother.
She paused before answering. “Charlotte Elizabeth” Sarah said finally, choosing the name he had fought for almost the entire pregnancy, “Charlotte Elizabeth Foxx, but we’ll call her Charlie.”
Tim smiled at this, immediately, Sarah guessed, recognizing the compromise that had long ago been discussed and then dismissed.
“Charlie,” he said, his voice shaking as he looked directly at the now quiet baby, “I love it.”
Sarah looked up at Tim, pulling Charlie close to her body, and saw that he too had tears welling up in his eyes. She felt her whole body relax into the hospital bed as she noticed that Charlie had inherited Tim’s eyes. This simple thought filled Sarah with comfort and joy as she fell into a deep well deserved sleep.
As Robert Nystrom walked up the steps to the apartment building he was trying not to be alarmed by the three young black men standing between himself and the door. The bright afternoon sun shone directly into his eyes which caused the men to come across more as a menacing shadow than as individual people. I’m a social worker, Robert thought, I’m not supposed to have racist thoughts. Despite this he found himself wondering why they weren’t in school or work or at least somewhere else doing something.
“Sup?” one of the men mumbled.
“Not much” Robert heard himself say as passed the men and approached the door.
“Lock’s broke” another of the men said, “bell’s broke too.”
Robert nodded and walked into the building. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he wondered as he crossed the dingy hallway towards apartment six.
Robert paused at the door before knocking. Minnie Jones was nice enough to him and was usually home when he got there. At least that was a positive. Still there was something about her that didn’t feel quite right. It seemed to Robert that Minnie was always trying to pull something over on him. The thing that bothered him about this was that she never asked for anything she wasn’t entitled to. In fact, she often asked for less than other parents on his caseload. It was just that she seemed to go about it in a way that never felt quite right to Robert. Still, he couldn’t help but like Minnie. She had a great sense of humor and an ever present smile.
When he finally knocked Robert heard some shuffling in the room behind the door and then the patter of footsteps. Robert heard the scrambled sound of a child trying to turn the doorknob until the door finally opened. Five year old Darius stood in the doorway staring blankly at Robert while Robert stared back for what seemed like a full minute. Eventually Robert broke the two person trance by asking the child if his mom was home.
“She on the couch” Darius slurred as he turned and ran toward the living room.
“No surprise there” Robert thought, ashamed with himself for even thinking it.
Robert followed Darius into the living room and sat down on the big empty sofa adjacent to the one Minnie was sitting on.
“You knock like the police” Minnie said smiling.
“I do? Me? I don’t even know what the police knock like” Robert replied smiling back at Minnie.
“Sure you do” she responded as they both turned towards the soap opera on the television and dropped the subject.
Robert and Minnie spent the next 30 minutes discussing her children and what they needed to be successful at home and school. Robert was a county children’s mental health social worker who had been assigned the case of Minnie’s older son Tre when the boy began having problems in school. Tre was 8 years old and, like his mom, had already been diagnosed with a wide variety of mental health disorders including Bipolar Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The five year old Darius had just begun kindergarten a few weeks earlier and was already having behavioral problems despite only being in class during the morning. Darius was not actually on Robert’s caseload but Robert was helping Minnie connect with the school’s early childhood specialist to get him an assessment. Besides, Robert figured, the kid will be on my caseload soon enough.
Robert and Minnie finished up by scheduling a follow up appointment for two weeks later. Minnie agreed to get in contact with the specialist at the school and Robert agreed to try and connect with Tre’s psychiatrist to express some concerns he and Minnie both had about one of the medications Tre was taking. Minnie had been in a particularly good mood today and Robert felt pretty good about how the appointment had gone. They ended the meeting by both staring blankly at the TV and watching together as an old woman yelled at, and eventually slapped, a much younger woman who seemed almost airbrushed she was so perfect looking.
“I can’t believe she is still on” Robert stated “I used to watch this show when I stayed home sick from school.”
“Me too.” Minnie responded “me too.”
Robert waved goodbye and walked himself out while Minnie yelled at Darius, who had been running around the apartment most of the time Robert was there, to be sure to wash his hands after he was done in the bathroom.
Charlie couldn’t stand the screaming anymore.
“Stop fucking screaming!” she screamed.
The other two girls, Jen and Ashley, stopped just long enough to glare at her in unison and then went right back to screaming at each other about a CD that apparently belonged to one and had been lost by the other. They were like this pretty much every day.
“Stay out of it Charlie” snapped Donna, “no good can come from your getting involved.”
“Shut up” Charlie barked.
Donna wisely looked back at the girls who were being ineffectively separated by a new staff named Joey who so far was giving Charlie the creeps.
Charlie had been living for the last seven months at South Field Academy in rural southern Minnesota. She had been placed at the residential facility after a string of failed foster homes and a miserable two months living with her maternal grandparents. As far as Charlie was concerned South Field had been nothing but a pain in her ass. At 14 years old she felt she should be going to a regular school with regular kids and, especially, regular boys. The boys at the South Field school were dumb and immature and they smelled bad. Despite this Charlie had a new boyfriend just about every other day.
“Hey Charlie,” Donna asked looking back at her from the staff desk, “who was that boy you were talking to after school when I picked you up?”
“Who knows?” Charlie quipped back “Some weird new kid.”
Charlie didn’t want to talk about it and she sure didn’t want anyone to know that she had told the boy, whose name she really didn’t know, that he was cute and if he had any guts he would make a break for it before this place screws him up like it screws everyone up. He had blushed and said he was for sure planning to go for it after lights out tonight.
“His name is Clint,” smirked Ashley, joining in now that her dispute with Jen had been temporarily resolved, “and Charlie likes him.”
Charlie glared at Ashely and, after getting her to drop her eye contact, stated “I don’t like anyone, especially anyone at South Field.”
“Whatever” Ashely mumbled walking back to her room.
Although Charlie would never admit it, she was glad to know that the boys name was Clint and she decided that if he did try to run away she would kiss him on the lips the first chance she got.
“Are you glad the I got the screaming to stop Charlie?” Joey asked walking up behind her.
“You got lucky” she responded “besides, if you really want to do something useful you will make Ashley and Jen go far away or at least shut up for a whole night.”
“Cut him some slack” Donna interrupted “he’s not magic.”
“Magic sucks” Charlie replied as she walked into her room and plopped down on the bed as loudly as she could.
Tim Brunell stared down at the papers laid out on the table in front of him and felt all the energy leave his body. When he had returned home from his part time job at the video store Tim had spied the large envelope displaying the county seal with a mix of depression and excitement. One one hand he was glad to once again be involved in his daughter’s life, even if it was on a superficial level. One the other had this kind of thing made him anxious and tended to confuse him. Besides, he hadn’t seen Charlie in over three years and hadn’t even talked to her in almost two. What was he supposed to do? He lived in deteriorating apartment which he barely made enough money to maintain and worked part time at a dead end job. What could he possibly offer his daughter now? Charlie had been kicked out of everywhere she had lived since her mother had died and now he understood that she was living in some kind of prison like place with locked doors and other screwed up kids. He worried that he had been a shitty parent when she was younger and he would be an even worse parent now.
After some searching Tim finally found a pen and began to look through the papers that had been sent in the large ominous envelope. They were mostly legal documents that needed his signature. Consents for the release of his personal information, some questionnaires about Charlie’s early life and his own medical history. Fuck, he thought, what’s next? He exhaled loudly as he reached for his little wooden box of weed. Tim pushed the papers away and smoked two one hitters quickly and unceremoniously. When he was done he felt a little better and got up to get a drink of water. When he returned to the table Tim simply began to sign the pages without reading them. Thankfully someone had highlighted the areas he needed to sign in yellow so it was actually pretty easy. Now that he was relaxed some from the weed Tim even began to get through the questionnaires. He decided to hold nothing back. His mother’s depression, his father’s drinking, his uncle’s suicide. This was actually going ok. After all, Tim figured, he had nothing left to lose.
Suddenly he was awakened out of his trance by the shrill sound of his ringing cell phone. Tim caught his bearings and dug the phone out of his pocket.
“Hello” he said tentatively, answering it more out of reflex then anything.
“Is this Tim Brunell?” A man’s voice asked from the other line.
“Yes, that’s me.” Tim answered nervously.
“Hi Tim, this is Robert Nystrom, Charlie’s social worker. We spoke a few weeks ago?”
“Yeah, hi” Tim said, now really worried.
Why did he always have to be stoned whenever something important comes up? Because I’m always stoned, he thought to himself. When aren’t I?
“Did you get the packet I sent you” Robert asked?
“I just got it,” Tim replied “I’m almost done, how soon do you need it back?”
“I’ll get it from you pretty soon, I need to come meet you,” Robert continued, “I can get it then. When would you be available to meet with me?”
Now Tim was really nervous. His mouth was getting very dry and when he went to drink a sip of his water he turned the cup over and spilled the contents onto the pile of papers he had just been signing.
“Anytime” he managed to say “are you going to come here?”
“I can, if that’s ok,” Robert answered. “Do you happen to be available tomorrow?”
“I work at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” Tim said sharply, “Anytime before that would work.”
Robert suggested 9AM and Tim agreed without thinking about how early that was. Jesus Christ,Tim thought to himself, what the hell just happened? Starring at the not yet done papers on the table, wet from his spilled water, Tim felt defeated.
“I’ll finish this shit later” he said out loud and reached for his little wooden box.
Charlie was seven years old when her mom died in a car accident. After the accident she lived with her dad for a while but it didn’t always go very well. At first Charlie cried a lot about missing her mom and they were both staying up late and not not taking care of themselves. Charlie started to miss school pretty often and even when she was there she was usually either sleeping or getting into trouble. Then her dad started to leave her home alone for long periods of time. He was out with friends or working or something. He was smoking pot most of the time. Charlie could tell because her mom had taught her what it smelled like and she could smell it in the house. Charlie had to learn how to take care of herself. She changed her own clothes, made her own meals, put herself to bed. It got pretty bad after a while.
Eventually Charlie and her dad had other people getting involved. People who said they were social workers would come to the house and tell her dad what to do, tell Charlie what to do. At first she liked them, they were nice to her and nice to her dad. One of them smelled kind of like her mom and that made Charlie feel good. She started seeing a doctor, taking medicine and going to school everyday. Charlie stopped getting into trouble so much and her dad was at home with her almost all of the time. Charlie didn’t smell pot everyday anymore. Just some days. This lasted for a while. Charlie and her dad actually had some pretty fun times then, especially in the summer when they would walk up to the park or one of the nearby lakes almost everyday. Charlie even has some very specific memories of those times like the one sunny and hot afternoon at the park when some bigger kids started to tease her for having dirty clothes and her dad had chased them off for her. After that he bought her ice cream and promised to buy her some new clothes as soon as he could. A few days later they went shopping and Charlie got a new pair of shorts and two new shirts. The shirts, she remembered, were exactly the same expect one was pink and one was yellow.
In the winter, just after Charlie turned nine, is when it got bad again. Her dad was sleeping all the time and smoking pot everyday again. Charlie could smell it. He hardly even talked to her and when he did it was usually in a mean voice. Charlie would yell at him and demand that he get up and take her to a movie or shopping but he would just say no. “We’re too broke,” he would say, or “that movie looks like it sucks.” Charlie started crying and yelling a lot and was having scary nightmares about being in the car when her mom had the accident. The social workers still came around some but Charlie and her dad were avoiding them. “Don’t answer the door,” Charlie remembered him telling her more than once as they sat quietly in the back room until the knocking stopped.
Then Charlie pretty much stopped going to school altogether. She was embarrassed by her old and dirty clothes and didn’t like it there anyway. The other kids were mean to her and the teachers were always getting into arguments with her. Charlie stayed in her room and her dad mostly stayed in his, leaving only to go to work for a few hours a week or to go drink beer with a friend of his that gave Charlie the creeps every time he came over. Finally the social workers told Charlie’s dad that if she didn’t start going to school every single day she would have to go live some where else.
“Where else will she go” he asked coldly, “her mom’s dead.”
“I don’t know” said the woman who smelled like Charlie’s mom “Are there any relatives who could take her?”
“Well,” sighed her dad after a long pause, “I don’t have any relatives that I trust or even really know anymore and her mom’s sister is a crack head. I guess she could go live with her grandma out in the sticks.”
“I don’t want to go to Grandma Carol’s” Charlie remembers screaming as she ran into her bedroom and slammed the door.
Tim first met Sarah at an outdoor Leftover Salmon concert on his 25th birthday. He was there with some high school buddies and was bored out of his mind. Sarah was a vision of beauty and a welcome distraction from the spinning dancers and noodling guitar solos. Sarah and two of her friends twirled up to Tim in bare feet and sundresses and began to put on a show. The way Tim remembers the day Sarah literally had flowers strung into her long reddish brown hair. Although all three girls were dancing around and flirting with Tim, Sarah was the one he noticed and to his delight she was the one who was making eye contact directly with him.
At the set break Tim pulled out a joint that he had been saving for the car ride home and the four of them passed it around under the hot sun right in the middle of an uncaring crowd. By the time the joint was done it was just Tim and Sarah laughing at everything and smiling back and forth about nothing in particular. When the music started up again they started dancing and Tim began to like the music that a mere forty minutes ago had made him so bored. LIked it so much in fact that the next day he bought one of their CD’s. By the third song of the second set they were touching as they danced and by the sixth song they were kissing. Tim was hooked bad and he didn’t even know her name.
At first they were inseparable. Every day when they weren’t working they were together. Usually at her place because it was much nicer and she only had one roommate. Both were working at different restaurants, Tim as a line cook and Sarah as a waitress, so they had similar hours and an endless supply of fun people to hang around and party with. Tim noticed that Sarah had a tendency to drink too much too fast and pass out. It didn’t bother him though because that was when he drifted off with the serious pot smokers and they would smoke until the early morning when it was time to wake Sarah up so they could stumble home and sleep until the late afternoon.
It was the times Sarah didn’t pass out that were a problem. She would get crazy mad and start yelling at him or flirting with some other guy. Tim just accepted that she was like that sometimes and would wait for her to drink another drink and sleep. The next day she would ask what happened and Tim would just say, “nothing, we got a little crazy but it’s cool,” and that would be the end of it. Life was good and easy and they had just enough money to live and party and be mostly happy.
Then Sarah got pregnant. Tim tried to do the right thing but Sarah acted like everything he did was a slight against her of some kind. Still they agreed to try to be a family so Sarah’s roommate moved out and Tim moved in. They went to appointments together and when the doctor reminded Sarah she needed to quit drinking Tim mostly quit drinking too. For a while he even quit smoking weed but Sarah told him that he was depressing and he should start back up. Eventually they settled into pregnant life and living together made sense because they had basically been together all the time anyway. It was when Charlie was finally born that everything changed again.
Robert finished college with no idea what to do. He had majored in sociology because it was the only class he liked freshman year. After graduation he got a series of menial temp jobs and concentrated on saving money so he could join some friends on a backpacking adventure through Europe. His friends ended up flaking out but Robert went anyway and had a life changing adventure.
In Europe Robert was truly on his own for the first time. He went where he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted. He met exciting people from different countries. Robert spent a whole night drinking on the beach in Spain with a group of Dutch and Japanese students. He took a train from Paris to Prague with a cute Austrian girl and two British party guys who ended up taking too much of some weird drug and accidentally getting off the train somewhere in Germany. It seemed to Robert that every day was a refreshing change from the predictable life he had carved out back home. Even the challenging days of long uncomfortable travel and limited food and water seemed exhilarating. He returned from Europe with a new lease on life and a focus on finding a career that would provide challenge and adventure rather than just a paycheck.
Robert’s first job on this new path was working as a support staff at an Autism day treatment and school program. Here he learned how to work with kids who presented a variety of challenges due to their unique disability. Some of them could hardly speak while others had good language skills but struggled to adapt to changes in routine or to the needs of other people. After about six months Robert figured out that not only did he like this job but he was good at it. He was making nice connections with the kids and getting good reviews from his supervisors and from the families he worked with.
After working at the day treatment program for about a year and a half Robert took a job providing case management and in home early childhood education to struggling families. This job was a real challenge for Robert and taught him a lot about the many issues facing families and children with any number of needs. Again Robert excelled and found that he was especially adept at developing trusting relationships with the families. Robert had worked in this job for less than a year when he decided that he had indeed found the career for him and began applying for local social work graduate programs. There were three such programs in the Minneapolis area and Robert was only accepted into one; his last choice. Still Robert cut down to part time hours, took out some student loans, and took the plunge into graduate school.
“All right girls, time to line up” Joey stated matter-of-factly.
“Obviously” Charlie groaned, rolling her eyes. “Where are Jen and Ashley?”
Just then Donna came out of the two girl’s room with both sheepishly in tow.
“Look what I found” Donna said holding up a pack of cigarettes.
“They’re Charlie’s” Jen said.
Charlie didn’t smoke and wasn’t about to be accused of having contraband by these two bleach headed freaks who had been against her since the day she arrived.
“Now Charlie” Joey exclaimed with his hands out.
But it was too late. Charlie immediately lost it and began to shout down everyone. She threatened to kill Ashley and Jen. She called Donna a bitch for believing them and she kicked Joey in the shin on her way out out the door and off the unit. Charlie started to run without any thought of looking back. All she was thinking was that she needed to be anywhere in the world besides South Field Academy.
Within seconds she was out the front door and down the block, still not looking back to see who, if anyone, was following her. She knew that someone would follow her but she was determined to get away from all those bitchy girls and mean staff. No one at South Field cared a damn for her and she was sick of it. She would find some one else to live with. Charlie didn’t care who.
“Fuck you all South Field” she screamed as she continued to run.
Turning down a side street Charlie thought maybe she was going to make it. She was going to get away. She was finally going to be away from this place. Charlie was tired and out of breath and about a mile away when she saw the lights of the police car flashing behind her. She gave one last burst of energy, running as fast as she could until she finally came to a stop collapsing on the ground as the squad car pulled up along side her.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry young lady?” asked a large officer that Charlie was certain she had seen before.
“Anywhere, whatever” she answered avoiding eye contact with the officer.
“Well,” he said “I guess it’s time to come with me.
“I’m not going back to hell” Charlie said as dramatically as she could in her exhausted state, finally looking directly at the policeman.
“How about this?” he went on “my name is officer Johnson. Things are pretty slow tonight so really I’m not in much of a hurry. If you let me call South Field and tell them I have you they will stop worrying. Then you can come in out of the cold and sit in my car with me and we can just see what makes sense for our next move.”
“I’m not fucking going back there” Charlie demanded.
“Who said you were?” Officer Johnson asked smiling warmly and holding the front passenger door of his squad car open.
After a few moments of looking at her feet Charlie slowly got into the car and folder her arms across her chest. The two of them sat in silence for about five minutes until officer Johnson asked Charlie if she liked music. She nodded and he switched the radio on and, without even asking, turned it to her favorite station. They listened to about three whole songs before Charlie finally broke the silence.
“You’re going to bring me back there aren’t you?” she asked.
“Well young lady, I guess I don’t really know where else I would bring you” he responded.
“I hate it there” she said flatly “I really do.”
“I’m sure you do” he said.
“Ok,” Charlie said with a defeated voice, “take me home.”
When they got back to South Field everyone on her unit was eating dinner. Charlie was embarrassed and didn’t want to look at anyone and was relieved when no one said anything to her as officer Johnson walked her all the way to the dinner table. Charlie continued to avoid eye contact of any kind as she sat down at the end next to Donna.
“Good news Charlie” one of the girls said “it’s your favorite, mac and cheese.”
This was good news and Charlie, who was actually pretty hungry, started to relax.
“Hey Charlie” Jen said glaring and her as Charlie finally got up the energy to glare back. “Are you going to tell your new boyfriend Clint that the you were picked up by the police tonight?’
At this Charlie felt a smile creep onto her face and she decided that she would tell Clint. She would tell him all about it the first chance she got.
Robert arrived at Tim’s house at exactly nine in the morning. Tim had set his alarm for eight and spent the morning burning incense and cleaning in a mad scramble. He had checked and double checked to make sure that nothing that could get him into trouble was laying out. Still, when the doorbell rang he had run through the apartment making one last check. The incense was still burning strong and the smell of the pungent smoke hung in the air as Tim led Robert into the living room and offered him a seat on on the couch.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice Tim,” Robert said sticking out his hand for a shake.
Tim was nervous but calmed as he he began to realize that Robert was not there to try to get him into any kind of trouble. They shook hands weakly and sat down across from each other. Tim on the hard chair and Robert on the couch.
“So Tim, when was the last time you saw Charlie?” Robert asked.
“Let’s see,” Tim replied straining to remember, “it’s been a few years.”
“Can you tell me, from your perspective what happened?” Robert asked.
“You mean the whole story?” Tim asked, getting nervous again.
“Let’s start with what it was like when you last saw her and why it has been so long” Robert answered, his slight smile helping put Tim at ease.
“When I last saw her she was living in a foster home out in some suburb,” Tim said. “In order for me to see her I needed to have the visit supervised by the foster parent or her social worker.” he went on. “I did this a few times but it was never cool, you know what I mean? And then Charlie was kicked out of the foster home and Susan, the social worker at the time, told me she was moving her to another foster home, even further away, that specialized in girls like her. Charlie was cutting on herself and pretty much out of control and it seemed like it got worse every time I went to visit. Eventually it just took too much energy for me to bother and it didn’t seem like it did her any good anyway.”
“So when was the last time you actually saw her?” Robert asked.
“Right after she moved to that other foster home, the one after the Butler’s I went to a meeting at the county building and they brought her in for it. We were both there but we hardly even spoke. She was a mess. She didn’t last very long at that home from what I understand. After that she went to her grandma’s I think, but only for something like two weeks. Then she went to that teen ranch place and I haven’t seen her since. We talked a few times on the phone but eventually that ended too.” Tim went on. “Why have you seen her?”
Robert paused for a bit before answering.
“I have seen her, about two weeks ago” he finally said. “She is actually doing pretty well which is why I contacted you.”
“What do you mean by doing well?” Tim asked skeptically.
“From what I understand she hasn’t cut on herself at all in about three months and even before that it had been pretty sparse. She is doing well in school and making progress with her therapy. South Field is starting to think about discharge planning.”
“Discharge?” Tim asked in shock “where will she go?”
“Well,” Robert admitted. “that’s part of why I am here.
“You mean you want her to come live with me?” Tim blurted out.
“I don’t know Tim,” Robert said “I need to have a better understanding of what the options are before I make any decisions. It’s not like South Field is thinking of discharging her next week or anything. This thing is going to take some time. Part of what I need to understand is where you are and what kind of relationship you see yourself having with Charlie from here on out.”
“Shit, I guess I haven’t really thought about it. I mean I think about her all the time” Tim said catching himself, “but I don’t really know what to think.”
“I don’t know at this point either,” Robert admitted, but I would like you to think about it and then we can talk more about it soon. There is a meeting on Monday down at South Field. I’m planning to go and if you are up for it I can pick you up and bring you with me.”
“You mean Charlie will be there and I can see her?” Tim asked, feeling his heart begin to suddenly beat very fast.
“Absolutely, if you’re up for it. I think it would be good for her to see you. It seems like it might be good for you as well” Robert said.
“I don’t know how I would get there” Tim said feeling himself beginning to sweat.
“I’ll pick you up” Robert offered again.
They ended the meeting by going over the paper work that Tim had struggled to finish the previous night. Before leaving Robert again shook Tim’s hand and agreed to pick him up at seven A.M. on the following monday. Tim felt himself shaking and as soon as he saw Robert’s car pull away from the curb he went into his bedroom and pulled his one hitter and box of weed out of his sock drawer. Tim felt himself starting to cry gently and he wasn’t able to fully calm down until he had smoked more than he usually did.
Robert’s phone began to ring almost as soon as soon as he got into the car. It was Minnie, something had happened with Tre at school. Something about him being suspended and needing a meeting before they would let him back in. What Minnie was saying wasn’t making any sense and Robert knew her well enough to know that this was because she was upset and struggling to understanding exactly what had happened. From the sounds of what Minnie was saying, Tre had gotten into a fight.
“Was the other kid suspended as well?” Robert asked her.
“I think so” Minnie answered.
“Then I wouldn’t worry about it too much” Robert continued, “if both were suspended then neither is probably in very much trouble.”
This point helped Minnie calm down and she began to make more sense. She said she needed to pick Tre up as soon as she could. Robert asked her if she was ok to do this by herself and she said she could handle it, that she had just needed to talk to someone else about it.
“Ok” Robert said, “good luck. Call me when you get back home and let me know how things turn out.”
Robert hung up and turned onto a busy one way street leading back to his office downtown. He was thinking about the meeting he’d just had with Tim Brunell. Tim had seemed nice enough but also a little nervous, like maybe he was hiding something. Still Robert liked him and was glad that the meeting had gone well. Charlie’s case was confusing him and now he was getting pressure to move her out of South Field. Robert had no good ideas of where she could go. Maybe, he thought, if he could help Tim and Charlie rebuild their relationship they would both have grown up enough to try living together as a family again. He knew from the case notes that this seemed like a long shot but he also was not excited about the idea of Charlie going into yet another foster home.
Robert got back back to his desk and started to sift through what seemed like an endless pile of phone messages and emails. He was just finally finishing up when he got another call from Minnie.
“We’ll I got him Robert. He’s doing fine.” She reported.
“What happened and what’s next? Robert asked.
“Well,” Minnie said “Tre was still pretty mad when I got to school but was able to calm down when I promised to take him to McDonalds. Now we are going to go home and watch a movie and I have to bring him back to school on Wednesday at 8am. They want you to come too.”
Robert checked his schedule.
“I’ll be there” he said writing it down and thinking that Tre didn’t exactly deserve McDonalds and movie time as a consequence for fighting. “I’ll have to talk to her about that” he thought as he turned to read the four new emails that had come in while he was on the phone.
At first Tim couldn’t really even process what it meant to have a baby. He and Sarah were like ships in the night just trying to survive the storm. Tim was working as many hours as he could get and trying to help with Charlie in anyway he was able. It seemed like Sarah was always rocking, changing or feeding Charlie and that Charlie was always crying. None of them were getting any sleep. Sarah looked run down and would start to cry or yell over just about anything. Eventually Tim sort of learned to stay away from her as much as possible. It just didn’t seem worth it.
Over time things started to feel better. Tim couldn’t tell if it really got better or if he just got more used to their situation. He started to get regular hours at work which helped a lot. Sarah focused on child care and Tim focused on paying rent and buying diapers. He had always wondered how he would be as a father and he was proud of his commitment if nothing else. He was doing his part. Sarah was still up and down emotionally but at least she had fallen into a rhythm as a mom. She had learned to sleep when Charlie was sleeping and had learned how to read what Charlie’s different cries meant. Things really got better when Charlie stopped crying all the time and finally started to sleep most of the night. Sarah also started feeding Charlie at consistent times of the day and got her onto a semi regular schedule. Tim too was sleeping more and was starting to feel happy again, or at least like he wasn’t falling apart anymore.
One concern that Tim was trying to put out of his mind was that Sarah just did not seem happy. She was sleeping more and had stopped crying for no apparent reason, like she had when Charlie was first born, but she still did not seem happy. It was like she was operating on auto pilot. Her routine was just that, a routine. She had lost access to the spontaneity that had made her sparkle when Tim and her first met. Tim at least got to leave the house and he wondered if Sarah resented him for this. She was stuck. Once she even screamed that she was sick of “this damn baby” and then immediately Tim could see that she regretted what she had just said, was embarrassed by it. What could he do? He left for work with out saying anything.
Things changed again when Sarah stared going out whenever Tim had the night off. At first, when this happened, Tim welcomed it. Sarah, after all, deserved it. She had been trapped for more than six months and, as far as he could tell, had done a good job. Charlie would take a bottle from him so there was no longer any reason for Sarah not to go out and have fun with her friends once and a while. He was out working in a fun restaurant. Working with many of the same friends he and Sarah used to share. Hadn’t he occasionally stuck around after work to drink a beer or two? Tim had no problem with her wanting to go out.
The problem was that this increased the feeling that they were passing ships parenting Charlie like it was shift work rather than a shared responsibility. It became that either Tim was working or Sarah was out. They couldn’t go out together because someone always needed to be home with Charlie and they never stayed home together. The only time they really even saw each other was in the morning or when Charlie’s screams would wake them up and they would lay in their bed both hoping the other would get up and deal with it.
The one agreement that they were able to make to help this be more bearable was that whoever had been home the night before would then be the one who woke up with Charlie the next morning. This way whoever had been out late, Tim because he was out working or Sarah because she had been out drinking with her friends, could sleep in while the other had to wake up when Charlie woke up. This was an important agreement because Charlie woke up early, sometimes as early as 5:30 in the morning. This system worked well for them and somehow, without any discussion, led to an understanding that whoever stayed in would get to sleep in the bed and the other would go to sleep on the couch whenever they finally got home. With this new arrangement in place Tim began to stay out late after work almost every time. Three nights a week Sarah was out late and came home very drunk and slept on the couch. The other four night per week Tim was out just as late drinking and smoking pot with the other cooks from the restaurant. After a while this pattern became a habit, with very little variation, that somehow worked well for everyone. Even Charlie seemed to be doing well with this arrangement firmly in place and the months just began to melt away behind them.
Robert surprised even himself as he really excelled in graduate school. He found that he had just the right mix of experience and curiosity to stay focused in his courses. Along with his classroom work the program also required him to go out into the field and work an internship as a real social worker. This was by far Roberts favorite part of the whole graduate school experience. He took on an internship working as a social worker at a hospital unit for teenagers with psychiatric problems. These were the kids who were suicidal, homicidal or suffering from a wide variety of other mental illness symptoms. Despite the fact that Robert never had any similar problems himself he found that he really connected with these kids and that they really connected with him. Robert’s instructors, both at the university and at the hospital, told him he was a natural and backed off, allowing him to develop his own approach to working with these kinds of kids.
Robert found that kids, perhaps even more than adults, demanded realness in others. They could sniff out fakeness in each other and in the adults around them like hound dogs and were relentless, as well as ruthless, in exposing and ridiculing it at every turn. Robert worked hard to be honest with them and this honesty consistently paid off. He was getting information out of them that others had missed and he was praised for it. This apparent gift for the work was sometimes a source of pride and other times a source of shame. There were times when Robert felt like a complete fraud, like he was fooling everyone into thinking he was suddenly qualified to help people with real problems when all he was was a slightly older version of himself. He still felt like that same naive kid who had gotten off a plane in Frankfurt just a few years earlier, unsure of what to do or where to go, and called home before exchanging even one US dollar into Deutsche Marks. Now people were asking him what they should do to keep their suicidal 16 year old from cutting on herself or, even more scary, from trying to kill herself again.
He used this angst to his advantage, helping himself to focus both time and energy into excellence in the classroom as well as the hospital. He engaged his classmates and professors in intense dialogue about all issues of social work, spent entire nights writing research papers, and got better grades in graduate school than he ever had as an undergrad. Robert felt like he had found his niche, like he was finally on a path towards a real career rather than just another job. He spent all of his free time studying and almost no time on his social life. All this changed when he met Abby.
Abby was in the same program but taking courses part time because she was also working. She had just as much passion for the field as Robert but seemingly even more energy. She wore her soft blonde hair short and stared up at him with big brown eyes that always seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. They would spend hours studying together alternating between his and her apartment. Rather than serve as a distraction, like he initially thought it might be, Robert found his building relationship with Abby to further energize him as it pushed him to study even harder and to explore much more deeply the reasons why this career path, that up until just few years ago he had never even thought of, suddenly seemed like such a natural fit. The first night he kissed Abby Robert felt that his life was as close to perfect as it had ever been.
The social workers finally were left with no choice and had to move Charlie when she missed every day of school and her dad failed a drug test both in the same week. The first foster home she went to, Joni and Mark Butler’s home, was across the river in St. Paul not too far from where she had lived her whole life. At first, since she was only nine years old, the plan was for her to go back to live with her dad as soon as possible. Charlie was able to take a bus so she could stay at her same school and keep her same friends. After about six months, when her dad had failed two more drug tests and pretty much stopped showing up for visits, it became clear that she was not going to go back home anytime soon. This was when her life really changed.
Charlie switched to a school where she didn’t know anyone and lost contact with almost everyone she had ever known. She spoke to her dad on the phone about once every two weeks but these calls became increasingly less frequent and shorter in duration. She also spoke to her grandma Carol, her mom’s mother, once in a while. These conversations were always hard for Charlie. There had been talk at first about Charlie going to live with Grandma Carol and Grandpa Dave but that had been dismissed as a possibility because of Joe’s drinking and history of having a dangerous temper. Charlie and her grandma always ended up talking about how they both wished she could come live with them and Charlie would end the conversation in tears. Eventually these conversations too faded out until they almost never happened.
Despite all this Charlie had actually done pretty well at the Butler’s where she lived for almost two years. Eventually she made some friends at her new school and she got along well with the other girls in the home. She had a nice room and nicer clothes than she had ever had in her life. The Butler’s were strict but fair and were nice if not very much fun. They took care of Charlie’s needs and included her in whatever the family did. They took her swimming and camping and one time they even took her on a vacation to the Wisconsin Dells. Mostly Charlie was happy during these two years and she came to feel pretty comfortable in the Butler home.
Charlie still had nightmares however and would find herself overcome with sadness at times. Usually this happened, she knew, because she was thinking abut her mom, who she knew she would never see again, or her dad who she was starting to wonder if she would ever see again. Sometimes though she had no idea why she was crying. She just knew she was sad. The Butler’s took Charlie to a woman who said she was a therapist and who met with Charlie in an office every week. Charlie liked this woman well enough and it was nice to have someone to talk to that she didn’t have to see everyday. Mostly though this therapist just asked Charlie questions over and over and Charlie sometimes became frustrated about having to go all the time.
When Charlie was eleven years old she was given some more bad news. The Butler’s, who were as old as her grandparents, had decided that after almost 40 years and close to 300 foster children they were going to retire and move to Arizona. Charlie was crushed. She cried, it seemed to her, harder than she had ever cried in her life. Where was she supposed to go? Who was she going to live with now. Her grandpa was still drinking and her dad was still smoking pot. She started thinking about her mom more and more and felt herself turning angry at everyone. When the agency had a huge party for the Butler’s with a large room full of other foster parents and former foster kids Charlie made a big scene and had yelled “I hate you, you fucking bitch” to Joni Butler’s face right in front of everyone. Charlie felt exactly the same as she had when her mom died and left her and again she thought that she could never be happy again. She knew that something in her had changed forever and it was all Joni and Mark Butler’s fault for abandoning her like this. She really did hate them, just like she hated herself and hated everyone. Charlie was determined never to even bother trying to be happy.
Tim dug around in the closet until he found the old battered shoe box full of pictures. He pulled the box out and set it down in front of him on the kitchen table. After staring at it in silence for about four minutes Tim got up and walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. He reached below the couch and pulled up a tray with some weed, a lighter, and a small pipe. He put some of the weed into the pipe and looked at it.
“Fuck” he said out loud and put the pipe back into the tray and placed the tray back under the couch without smoking. He then stood up and paced around the apartment stretching his arms behind him as he did. Finally Tim sat down at the table in front of the old shoebox and opened it. He started at the beginning.
The very first picture he found was of him and Sarah while she was pregnant. They were standing in front of Sarah’s parents house and Tim was struck by how happy they both looked. He was also especially struck by how beautiful Sarah looked. She was beaming and looked positively radiant. She had always looked good, at least usually, but now he remembered how amazing she had looked when she was pregnant. Next came what seemed like about a million baby pictures of Charlie. There were pictures of her sleeping, pictures of her crying, pictures of her eating. They had pictures of Charlie as a baby in just about every situation and outfit she’d ever had. Tim had not seen these pictures in years and he found himself slowing down as he lingered over each one. Memories that he though had been lost forever were flooding him now. Charlie as a two year old, him and Charlie at the park, Sarah and Charlie waiting in line to see santa clause. He even found pictures of all three of them together and was surprised to see how happy they looked because, he thought, all of his memories of the family after Charlie had been born seemed to be of the bad times.
About the time he got to Charlie’s first day of school Tim began to wonder why they all seemed to be in perfect chronological order. He felt a tear well up in his eye and a smile creep into his cheeks as he remembered that he and Charlie had spent an entire snowed in weekend putting these pictures into order when she was about eight years old and still living with him. Tim shuddered a little as he also realized that had been the last time anyone had even looked at them.
Tim stood up and opened his refrigerator to survey the limited options. He pulled out a can of generic cola and opened it quickly, drinking with the refrigerator door still open. When he had finished half the soda and determined that there was nothing else he was interested in inside the refrigerator, he put the half drank can back on the shelf and shut the door. Tim then took a few laps around the apartment looking for something to distract him from the photo box. Each time he passed the couch he glanced briefly at the tray underneath the couch. Still each time he passed it up and finally Tim sat back down at the table and began to page through the remainder of the photos of his family. Most of the pictures were of Charlie at milestone events like Christmas and birthdays. There were pictures of Charlie dressed up as a lady bug for Halloween, opening presents on Christmas morning and petting animals at the zoo. Tim continued to be surprised at the happiness of moments that had been so clearly captured on film and how they contrasted with his memories of the arguments, the crying and the difficult times they had faced. Tim could feel tears rolling down his checks as he remembered the birthday gifts Sarah and he picked out together for Charlie and the disaster camping trip the three of them had tried to go on when Charlie was six years old where they hadn’t even lasted one night once it started raining. His tears had built into a steady stream by the time he hit Charlie’s seventh birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and when he found the picture of Charlie dressed in a black dress at Sarah’s funeral Tim finally allowed himself to break down into long pulsing sobs.
The new boy, Clint, and one of the staff for the boys unit walked past the girls as they were lining up and Charlie immediately began to turn a soft shade of red. The others girls must have noticed because instantly they started in on the comments.
“Ooh,” said Jen, ‘here comes Charlie’s new boyfriend.”
“She wishes” Ashley teased.
Charlie knew she was on thin ice from her mad dash the night before but she was not going to just stand and take this either.
“Hey Ben” she said, making sure to address the staff rather than address Clint directly, “better warn the new kid to stay away from Ashley and Jen unless he wants to get a bad case of the skank crickets.”
“That’s enough Charlie” the staff who was monitoring the girls warned.
When Charlie saw that this comment had gotten a wry smile out of her intended audience she continued on.
“Really?” she said “the last new boy told me he had a three way with them and the next day his dick swelled up as big as a watermelon and popped. He said it was the worst decision he ever made in his life and that when he left here he was going to have to be priest or something because he didn’t even have a wiener anymore.”
“Shut up bitch” Ashley and Jen said in stereo.
“One more word and I will drop your privs” said the staff sharply.
Charlie was unfazed by the threat because she could see that Clint was openly laughing now, egging her on.
“The worst part is that Ashley and Jen both got it from Jen’s uncle” Charlie said, knowing immediately that she had finally gone too far.
At this last comment Ashley reached out and weakly smacked Charlie across the shoulders from behind. Charlie turned to retaliate but the staff was already there to grab her by the arm and begin escorting her down the hall away from the rest of the kids who were lined up waiting for the teachers to come take them to the classroom.
“Hey come on, what did I do?” Charlie shouted, looking back to make sure Clint was seeing all of this.
Ashley settled back into line, apparently satisfied that Charlie had been sufficiently dealt with. Charlie too was satisfied that despite being in trouble this had been worth it. She had definitely made an impression on Clint.
The staff escorting Charlie walked her without speaking and brought her to the unit supervisor’s office. Maureen looked up from her desk as the staff gave her the quick version of what happened and walked out leaving Charlie and Maureen alone in the office staring at each other. After what felt to Charlie like at least five minutes Maureen signaled for her to sit in the chair against the back wall. Charlie promptly sat down and Maureen turned her back to her and attended to whatever she had been looking at on her desk.
When Charlie first arrived at South Field she and Maureen had not exactly gotten along. Charlie was in trouble all the time then and Maureen was a real hard ass. On more than one occasion Charlie had spent the entire evening, from the end of school right up until bedtime, in Maureen’s office. The two of them would sit together in silence, Charlie stewing in her own anger and Maureen seemingly oblivious to anything not on the desk in front of her. Things had gotten much better between them since and, although Maureen still was a bit of a hard ass, there was no one at South Field that Charlie trusted more.
Finally Maureen turned around from her desk and addressed Charlie.
“Charlie, what are you doing?” She asked.
“Standing up for myself, those girls are always trying to ruin my life” Charlie protested.
“Enough bullshit Charlie” Maureen countered “I don’t think you care about Jen and Ashley one way or the other.” She paused to let this sink in. “Do you know what I think Charlie?”
“What?” Charlie grunted skeptically.
“I think you were showing off trying to impress that Clint boy because he’s cute and he’s new” Maureen stated flatly.
“That’s crazy…” Charlie began to protest quickly stopping when she noticed Maureen was smiling.
“Do you think it worked?” she asked instead, sheepishly.
Maureen kept Charlie in her office for about twenty more minutes before walking her down to the classroom. Charlie knew she had been dropped on her privileges but she really didn’t care. She also know that all this would mean is she didn’t get to watch the after dinner movie until she earned her way back up and that it would only take her a day or two at the most once she decided she wanted privs back. As she walked into the classroom and took her assigned seat Charlie could feel the eyes following her and for the most part she was able to ignore them. When Jen quickly stuck out her tongue Charlie repaid the favor by flashing her middle finger, careful to hide it tight against her body so that the teachers couldn’t see.
At lunch that day Charlie got the answer as to whether or not her antics had been worth it. When he got up from his table with the rest of the boys to clear his dishes Clint made a point to walk past where Charlie and another girl named Corrie were sitting. As he walked past her on the way back to his table Clint briefly bent down and whispered “thanks for the warning.” At this compliment Charlie was only able to muster a nod and a smile before turning her gaze back towards her lunch. Corrie flashed a huge smile which caused Charlie to first blush and then smile herself. When Corrie began to laugh out loud Charlie couldn’t keep from joining her and soon both girls were giggling so loudly that they were asked to quiet down.
Although he had worked in his current position for almost a full year Robert’s direct supervisor still kind of scared him.
“Robert,” blurted Randy Blake as he passed Robert’s desk, “come talk to me in my office.”
Robert finished typing the email he was working on and scurried into the supervisor’s office and sat down. It wasn’t that Randy, who’s office had an excellent fourth floor view of downtown, was especially scary. He wasn’t. Randy had always treated Robert fairly and with respect. He had never placed unreasonable expectations on Robert, at least not ones he actually expected to be met, and he had always made himself available whenever Robert needed him. It was just that Randy was an old school, no nonsense kind of a guy who always seemed like he had at least three more important things going on that needed attending to. Despite this Robert was impressed with his bosses ability to focus on whatever was right before him at the time and he appreciated Randy’s willingness to defend his employees, even when they screwed up.
“What’s up?” Robert asked, pleased that he had sounded confident and busy as he said it.
“I just was wondering what is going on with a few of your cases, specifically the kids that are in treatment centers,” Randy said looking Robert squarely in the eyes. “The big wigs are up in arms again about the money we are spending on residential placements and I need to get a better handle on who we have where and why.”
Robert took a second to take mental inventory of his caseload. He had four kids who were currently in a residential treatment facility. One was very easy to justify, one was about to be discharged and two were worthy of further discussion.
“I have four” Robert said “Mai Lee, Thomas, Brent and Charlie.”
“Brent, I think, is right where he needs to be” Randy said recalling the cases Robert had just mentioned.
“Right, finally” Robert said relieved “And Mai Lee is going to be discharged to go live with her aunt next week.”
“So that leaves Thomas and Charlie” Randy said matter of factly, “Remind me what’s going on with those two.”
Robert leaned forward and started to talk about Thomas, an eleven year old boy who was very awkward and very unskilled socially. Thomas frequently had toileting accidents despite his age and had been placed at the St. Michael’s Children’s home when he threatened to push his four year old brother out of a moving car. The incident had occurred in response to a dispute the two were having over a McDonald’s happy meal toy and Thomas had gone so far as to open the car door while his mom was driving on the freeway. After a brief hospitalization Thomas was moved to the Children’s home and had been there ever since with very little contact from his family. Robert was working with the family to try to get them to take a more active role in bringing Thomas back home and lately had been feeling like they were avoiding his calls altogether. He promised to contact both the family and the Children’s home in the next day or two and update Randy with what he found out.
“That bring us to Charlie” Randy said as he sat back further in his chair and paused to enjoy the view outside his window. “What’s new with good old Charlie?”
Robert knew that Randy had been following Charlie’s case for a long time, much longer even than he had. The previous worker on the case retired and Randy had actually worked the case himself for a few months before Robert was hired and had taken over. Although Randy was an invaluable resource to Robert with all of his cases his familiarity with Charlie’s situation made him especially useful on hers.
“Charlie is actually doing pretty well” Robert began. “In fact, I spoke to her father just yesterday”
“Tim? How is Tim? Does he still smoke pot everyday?”
“I don’t know about that but he did seem pretty nervous when we spoke” Robert responded. “I’ll be sure to ask him.”
Robert was, of course, familiar with the the entire case file but didn’t necessarily remember all of the specifics, including Charlie’s father’s daily marijuana use. He was embarrassed to not know this as a matter of fact the way Randy did. He made a mental note to go back and review the case more closely to see if he had missed anything else. Here he was thinking of working on a reunification plan with a father who may be a daily drug user. Regardless of what he thought of smoking pot, which was a source of confusion for him sometimes due to the fact that he had smoked some in college, he knew the courts would never allow him to move a child who had been away from her family for as long as Charlie had been back in with a dad who was high all the time.
“Tim’s a good guy though” Randy said “he’s been through a lot and despite all his failings as a dad I never doubted that he loves his daughter.”
This comment made Robert feel a little better about what he was thinking in terms of where to steer Charlie and Tim’s relationship.
“Maureen from South Field told me just a few days ago that Charlie has come a long way. They are happy with the medication she is on, finally, and feel that she may be ready to start looking at discharge. So I guess she is another placement we can look at ending fairly soon” Robert reported. “The question, I guess, is where can she go? I was hoping she could go back to her dad, it has been a long time. I’ll have to find out where Tim is at these days.”
“So what is your plan for figuring that one out?” Randy asked flatly.
“Tim and I are driving down to South Field next week. I guess I’ll have to ask him.” Robert answered.
“Let me know how that turns out” Randy stated and moved back towards his computer keyboard.
Robert could tell the conversation had ended so he got up and walked out after telling his boss he would update him as soon as he had something more to add on any of these cases. Robert went back to his desk and unlocked his file cabinet.
“I’ve got some reading to do” he said out loud to himself as he pulled out the two hefty folders that comprised the Charlie Foxx file.
Three days before Joni and Mark Butler left for Arizona Charlie was moved to another foster home in a different suburb. This meant she was going to have to start at an all new school and try to make all new friends. Charlie was now having very little contact with anyone from her family and, after a teary goodbye with the Butler’s, her social worker packed her up along with everything she owned in the world and drove her across town to her new home. She lasted less than eight months.
The home she moved to was that of a single foster parent named Janice Franks. Janice had been a foster parent for close to twenty years and was not shy about making sure that Charlie know how experienced she was and that nothing Charlie did or said could possibly surprise her. The first thing Janice said after the social worker left was that as long as Charlie remembered that this was Janice’s house with Janice’s rules Charlie might just make it. Charlie felt pretty defeated by this comment, not that it really mattered anyway because as soon as she learned the Butler’s were kicking her out Charlie had determined that she wasn’t going to like anyone wherever she went no matter what.
School was even worse. The boys all stank and the girls were all stuck up. At least that was the way Charlie saw it. It seemed like all of her classes were taught out of order and she immedialy felt like she was way behind her classmates scrambling just to catch up. Charlie constantly had to endure the snickers and smirks from the other kids as she got yet another question wrong whenever her teachers called on her. She spent most of her lunchtimes sitting by herself at the corner table reserved for misfits, outcasts and foreign exchange students. Three times in the first two weeks Charlie was sent to the principals office for getting into a yelling match with one or more of her peers and when she finally got into an actual slapping fight Janice was called in for a meeting. When she got to the school Janice assured the teachers it would not happen again. That night Charlie was made to sit alone on the basement couch to “think about how she wanted to act” while everyone else in the home could be heard upstairs laughing and watching Miley Cyrus on TV. When Janice finally came down she reminded Charlie that her behaviors reflected on her as a foster parent and that she expected more. She went on to say life in her home could be wonderful or miserable, it was up to Charlie. Charlie got the message loud and clear.
After this Charlie did do better, at least from an outsiders perspective. She stopped fighting with kids at school and worked hard to try and catch up in her classes. Her teacher, who it turned out wasn’t actually so bad, even spent extra time helping her. Charlie even met some kids she could each lunch with so she didn’t have to sit alone anymore. She learned that as long as she did everything Janice asked her to do without arguing Janice would basically leave her alone. Still, Charlie was far from happy. She was just getting better at keeping the sadness to herself.
Charlie was having nightmares almost nightly. Most were of her and someone else important to her getting into car accidents. Because of this she got very little consistent sleep. She cried at almost anything that upset her and often found herself crying for no apparent reason all. She started thinking about suicide which scared her because, despite the desperate situation of her life, Charlie did not really want to die. Still she found her mind wondering more and more towards thoughts that she would be better off if she were dead. That everyone would be better off if she were dead. Charlie struggled not to let herself think of actual ways to kill herself. That was a line she tried hard not to cross. When she did let herself think about ways she might kill herself she would feel so guilty her whole body would sometimes shake. Charlie was eleven years old.
The one thing Charlie liked about it at Janice’s foster home was Leah. Leah was 15 years old, beautiful in Charlie’s eyes, very cool, and best of all, she was nice. At least she was nice to Charlie. Charlie started following Leah around the house, spending as much time with her as the older girl would allow. She started dressing like Leah, listening to the music Leah listened to and acting like her in any way she could copy. Still, for some reason, Leah did not mind. When, one day while they were alone watching television, Leah told Charlie that too suffered from frequent nightmares and bouts of unexplained sadness, it was like a weight had been lifted off her. To feel that anyone else in the world shared her pain, understood her pain, was amazing in its own right. For the person who understood what she was going through to be the person in world she most admired, most wanted to be, was indescribable.
“How do you deal with it?” Charlie asked “You seem so together.”
“I’ll show you” Leah answered, looking around to make sure Janice wasn’t nearby.
Next Leah lifted her left pant leg and pushed down her sock to reveal a series of small raised scars that cut across the nob just above her ankle. When Charlie’s face gave away her shock Leah put her finger to her lips shushing Charlie before she gave up the secret. Leah then went on to show off several more of the multiple places on her body that were home to similar stashes of raised scars.
“You tried to kill yourself?’ Charlie asked in disbelief.
“Of course not” Leah reprimanded. “They’re just cuts. Just little cuts. No big deal.”
“Why? How?” Charlie asked. “Does it really help you?”
Leah then went on to explain to Charlie how she cut and when she cut. She told the younger girl that sometimes when life was simply too much to bear she would find a piece of sharp metal and scratch a small line back and fourth until she drew just the right amount of blood and felt just the right amount of pain. She explained that, for reasons she didn’t understand herself, doing this would help her to feel better when she really needed to feel better. She explained to Charlie the importance of hiding this from Janice because “adults just don’t get it” and how to care for the wound by cleaning it well and covering it with Vaseline so it wouldn’t dry up and create as big of a scar. She taught Charlie the importance of not cutting too often, of having multiple target spots on her body, and that almost anything could be used if you were creative enough to think of it.
“Mostly I steal the blades out of pencil sharpeners from school,” Leah explained. “Sometimes the best I can come up with is a small metal paperclip.”
Upon learning this from her idol Charlie knew she wanted to try but she was scared. Blood had always freaked her out and she flinched at the thought of the pain. Still she was determined to try. Two weeks later she finally got up the courage to do it. Charlie had been having a real bad day. Even by her standards. She had woken up early, before her alarm, from a nightmare in which she and Joni Butler had driven off a cliff in an out of control car. At school she had been tired and crabby and had gotten into an argument with the girl who was the closest thing she had to a real friend her age. After the argument Charlie was in an especially down mood and found herself thinking about suicide. The rest of the school day her mind had drifted in and out of these thoughts. Charlie had tried hard to keep them away and had even attempted to distract herself by writing lyrics from her favorite songs all over her notebooks. Still the negative thoughts kept creeping back into her consciousness. She would remember her dream, which would remind her of her mom, and that would lead to her feeling alone in the world. Eventually this line of thinking would lead her back to thoughts of suicide.
By the time Charlie got home from school that day her mind was basically stuck on suicide and, when it occurred to her that she could break into the medicine cabinet that Janice often left unlocked, she started to feel out of control. Charlie was alone in her bedroom, lost in her scary out of control thoughts when she remember what Leah had taught her and how Leah had told her cutting could help her feel better when she most needed it. Charlie scanned the bedroom until her eyes landed on a cheap plastic ink pen with small metal clip attached on the end. She grabbed the pen and quickly broke the clip off and ran her fingertip along the sharp edge the split had created. It was perfect. Charlie pulled her loose fitting pants up as high onto her leg as they would go and rubbed a spot just above her knee. Without giving it much further thought Charlie plunged the newly created blade into her skin and scraped it roughly across the width of her leg. Instantly the blood came. Charlie briefly starred in horror before jumping up and finding a kleenex on her nightstand to wipe the cut clean. She held a crumpled bunch of kleenex over the wound until the blood stopped. Once this had happened Charlie pulled her pants back down over the cut and scurried into the bathroom to flush away the soiled kleenex. Returning to her room Charlie stuffed the metal clip deep into the space between her mattress and bedspring and sat back to survey her mood. It had worked. Worked better than she could have ever hoped. Charlie not only felt better, she felt surprisingly good. For the rest of the evening Charlie was in a happy, almost giddy mood. At dinner she laughed with Leah and the other foster girl in the home and even made a joke to Janice that had gone over better than jokes usually did with her foster mom. The dark thoughts from earlier that day did not return for the rest of the night which allowed Charlie to sleep soundly and without dreams.
From that day on Charlie began to cut whenever her thoughts became too much for her to handle. At first she tried to limit the cutting to days that were really bad. Slowly this restriction lifted and the cutting became more and more frequent. When Leah ran away from the home, leaving Charlie once again without the only person in her life she truly felt she could count on, the cutting pretty much took over. Charlie found herself cutting over the slightest emotional discomforts. If Janice got mad at her for not completing her laundry or picking up her room, Charlie would cut. If she got a bad grade on a test, or one of the kids at school made a nasty comment to her, she would cut. The cutting became so common that she became lazy about cleaning up after herself. It got to the point where Charlie would come home from school and walk into her room to see bloody kleenex on the floor from the night before. She was starting to feel out of control with the cutting and the only thing that made her feel under control was to cut more.
Finally Janice caught her. Janice had found the evidence in the room while Charlie had been in school. When Janice confronted her after school Charlie immediately began to yell and scream at Janice saying she hated her, hated her home, and wanted to kill herself. Janice reacted to this by calmly calling the police who came and brought Charlie to the hospital. Charlie spent the next five weeks in the hospital waiting for the doctors to decide if she was stable enough for discharge and for her social worker to find her a new foster home. Charlie had not spent a night in the hospital since the days immediately after she had been born and she had not even known that this was an option. While in the hospital she started to take additional medication to help her control her reactive mood and to help her sleep. She had time to reflect on what she had been doing and took stock of the various scars on her body. Charlie counted over 30 separate scars in four different body locations. She was surprised to notice how dependent she had become on cutting in such a short time and she told the doctors that she was dedicated to quitting the habit she had picked up from her role model Leah. It wasn’t until they believed that she was at least serious about trying to quit that they began to discuss discharge. By this time Charlie had been out of school for over a month and knew that her life was about to undergo yet another major change.
Robert’s second year of graduate school was even better than his first. He continued to do very well in his courses and had found an internship as a county case manager in the children’s mental health unit. This, by Robert’s way of thinking, was not only the perfect internship but the perfect job to try to get when he finished school. He was hoping that he could transition right into employment at the end of the year and his field supervisor had made several comments that made him believe this might be possible.
Despite how well his school and internship were going these weren’t even the best things going for Robert. That was Abby. They had successfully transitioned from study partners to dating and now on to full time boyfriend and girlfriend. By Thanksgiving of his second year in graduate school they had been together for almost ten months and were practically inseparable when it came to free time. This situation was undoubtedly aided by the fact that free time, for both of them, was almost nil and free time in which they were both free at the same time was practically unheard of.
The time they did have together was Robert’s favorite part of the week. They tried not to talk about school or social work, concentrating instead on sharing their wildly varied musical tastes, or enjoying the city they both had lived in their whole lives but vastly ignored. They tried desperately to find time to go to museums, take long walks, visit parks they had never been to, or eat at out of the way restaurants in what sometimes seemed like a foreign neighborhood all across the city. Oftentimes they were both so tired they simply curled up on the couch with one or two movies and enjoyed each others warmth and silence, both favoring silly comedies and over the top action movies to any movie which required thinking or emotional reaction.
Abby, who had already completed her two required internships, was working close to full time as an advocate at a local woman’s shelter while finishing up her course work two classes at a time. Her energy and passion for the work she did continued to amaze and inspire Robert who often wondered if he would have been able to sustain the energy and focus needed. What amazed Robert most about Abby, however, was the she apparently felt the same way about him.
As the months began to pass the routine became more and more routine. Robert was learning a lot at his county internship and was taking on more and more responsibility in the role. He was gaining confidence as a social worker and had been given the freedom from his supervisor to make independent decisions. One of his cases even landed in family court where Robert found himself advocating on behalf of a family for the kids to remain in the home with the supports he was able to set up. When the judge ruled in favor of the family’s request, based partially on Robert’s testimony, he had felt an odd mixture of pride and embarrassment, not being fully comfortable with the idea that such a huge decision could hinge in even a small way on something he said or did.
His classes were almost an after thought as he continued to cruise through the endless readings, research papers and group projects. Robert was a key contributor in almost every class discussion and soon found that the other students were coming to him for advice on how to go about managing their own various papers and projects. Robert was starting to feel ready for his role as an actual social worker. He was starting to get anxious for school to end and his career to begin. He was ready.
In the spring, about the same time that his classes were starting to wrap up, Robert began to feel his relationship with Abby lose momentum. They were making less and less time for each other and having less fun during the times when they were together. The field trips around town had given way to a pattern of movie rentals and take out. Robert sensed they were in a holding pattern with neither wanting to make any wholesale changes in their lives with the graduate school finish line so clearly within sight. He was pretty sure Abby sensed this too so when, in the beginning of May, just a few weeks before graduation, she accepted a full time position at at woman’s shelter in downtown Chicago, Robert was almost as relieved as he was saddened.
Robert took and passed his social work licensing exam three days after Abby announced her decision to move to Chicago. Because he passed this exam Robert became licensed social worker the moment his graduation was official. Robert had found his career. Even better Robert’s hopes seemed to be coming true. Another unit within the Children’s Mental Health department had an opening and Robert was given a glowing recommendation from not only his field supervisor but from her direct supervisor as well. He interviewed for the position and less than one week after graduation Robert began his new job as a real county social worker. Graduate school had been a major success and all signs suggested that it had been the right decision. Robert helped Abby pack up and move, found himself a nicer apartment, bought what was the closest thing to a new car he had ever owned, and settled into his new life. For the first time he felt like a real adult with a real career and the regular ups and downs of a real life. This was both exciting and scary for Robert and he responded by jumping in with the same vigor with which he had attacked gradate school.
At about eighteen months old Charlie became much easier for Tim and Sarah to parent. She had turned into a pretty happy little kid for the most part. Sarah was very sweet with Charlie and would sit in the mornings and afternoons on the floor with her for hours playing whatever little game Charlie wanted to play. During these times Tim would marvel at Sarah’s patience and could feel a part of him becoming jealous because he remembered when Sarah used to devote that kind of gentle attention to him. Something she rarely did anymore. It was during Charlie’s more difficult moments that Tim questioned if Sarah had it in her to be a parent. When Charlie would yell or cry, for any reason, Sarah seemed to only have two different responses; scream back or run away.
On days when Charlie’s mood was particularly bad Sarah would often invent some excuse to leave the house, sometimes returning just in time for Tim to make it to work. When this happened Tim was sometimes nervous about then leaving Charlie with Sarah, afraid that she would snap if Charlie pushed her too far. Still, Tim knew he had to go to work and once he got there and he and the other line cooks started smoking pot in the coolers his fears would vanish beneath the fogged in confusion of the drug and the fast paced responsibility of his job. By the time the shift was over Tim’s worries about Sarah and Charlie would be far behind him as he and his friends started drinking away the memory of yet another busy night. The next morning, when he woke up to a new day, and a new mood for both girls in the home, all the concerns were often eased by watching Sarah lead Charlie in another game of blocks or coloring on the living room floor.
Tim’s relationship with Charlie was much different than Sarah’s. After he got over the initial shock and self doubt about being a parent Tim began to realize that Charlie was the single most powerful force that had ever entered his life. He would just look over and see her laying on the floor and could immedialy feel his heart beat change. Tim came to realize that having Charlie was not only an exciting, joyful adventure but also the biggest emotional risk he had ever taken. At no point before Charlie had there been any one thing in his life that would leave such an irreplaceable hole if it were to go away. He remembered thinking he felt this way about Sarah at one time but now, with the experience of having had a child, he knew that had not been the case. A least not in quite the same way. His personal attachment and devotion to Charlie scared Tim. The risk sometimes feeling too great. The pressure of living up to what he wanted to offer her more than he could fully accept. This was what sometimes drove Tim to a dark place inside himself where he would focus on his failures as a father and as a man. Charlie deserved more, he would think, Sarah deserved more. As had been the case since his teenage years, Tim’s method of dealing with these dark thoughts and self doubt was to smoke pot. When he was high Tim could focus on something that was right in front of him such as television, a game, or a book, and everything else would just slip into the background. Far too often Tim found himself turning to this vice to get away from his thoughts.
Tim was not as good as Sarah at sitting down and playing with, or reading to, Charlie. He would get bored or try to steer whatever game they were trying to play away from Charlie’s rules towards whatever he thought to be the right way to play. He lacked Sarah’s imagination and it showed when he attempted to play with his daughter. His strength as a parent came in that whenever Charlie needed something Tim seemed to know exactly what it was she needed. When she was having trouble sleeping he figured out she needed a night light. When she was frustrated he often could help her express herself, sometimes saying for her the word she had not yet learned to say but seemed to understand. He felt that he and Charlie had a bond that went beyond playing on the floor or reading books. When Charlie wanted to play she went to her mom, when Charlie was scared or hurt she ran for her dad.
The other thing that Tim did so well with Charlie was taking her out on what he liked to call their adventures. Beginning almost as soon as Charlie learned to walk Tim began to bring her out to do things around town and found that the two of them were genuinely able to have a a pretty good time. The first adventure came one random Wednesday when Tim had the whole day off and Sarah, who was very hung over from the night before, made it clear early in the day that she was not going to be pleasant to be around for either one of them. About the third time that Sarah snapped at Charlie over some little thing Tim decided he’d had enough and grabbed Charlie and walked out of the apartment without any kind of plan in mind.
It was one of those postcard perfect days and Tim, going slowly so Charlie could keep up, started walking towards the busy street trying desperately to think of something he could do with a one year old that would keep them both busy and out of the house. Finally Tim had an idea, they could go to the zoo. Their timing once they got to the main street was perfect as a bus heading in the right direction was just pulling into view. Tim figured that he had just enough money in his pocket for bus fare both ways and a small treat if they were lucky.
The trip to the zoo was a raging success. Charlie was delighted by the animals and Tim found that being out with just he and his daughter was the most relaxed he had been without weed in a long time. Every time Charlie saw a new animal she would squeal with delight and Tim would feel his whole body warm over with that feeling of knowing that she was having the kind of fun that cannot be faked, that they both were. They must have watched the monkeys for an hour strait and, when they stopped on a nice bench in the sun and shared an ice cream cone, Tim’s knew that he had found a new way to be happy and share that happiness with his daughter. This realization made Tim feel particularly good because this was something that he had been trying to figure out for a while. He had known for some time now that he was not a happy person and he had been feeling bad for projecting his brand of sadness on Charlie. Now he had finally found a way to bring her some basic joy and he couldn’t have been more pleased about it.
Charlie, it seemed, was happy about this adventure as well. She laughed all through the ice cream and, even though she was missing her nap, was able to continue on to see the rest of the zoo. On the bus ride home Charlie fell asleep with her head across Tim’s lap as he stared contently out the window watching the city fold in behind them. When they finally got home they had been gone for over six hours and the sun was already starting to dip behind some of the bigger buildings on the block. Sarah was gone for the night by the time Charlie and Tim got home which left the two of them alone to continue on with the rest of their evening. They were both hungry and tired form the long day and Tim cooked them a nice big dinner. After dinner Tim gave Charlie a warm bath and talked to her about the different kinds of animals they had seen that day. She seemed just as happy reliving the day as she had while it was happening. Charlie went to sleep easier than she usually did and Tim enjoyed the rest of his evening feeling like that they had started a tradition that would last a lifetime. He also slept better than usual that night.
After the day at the zoo Tim brought Charlie on many different adventures to many different places around the city. They went to as many parks as Tim could find within a reasonable bussing distance often returning again and again to their favorite ones. They went to the library where they would read books or look at pictures on the computers that were available for anyone to use. At the library Tim discovered that he could check out passes to take Charlie to a wide variety of places around the city for free, places they normally would not have been able to afford. They went to the art, science and children’s museums. They went to the aquarium at the Mall of America and to the Children’s theater. They also went back to the zoo, where they had gone on their very first adventure, over and over again. Tim realized that, in a lot of ways, he was experiencing more in the city with Charlie than he had ever experienced before. His parents had sure never taken him and his brother to any of these places when he was a kid.
As Charlie’s language skills developed Tim found that they were able to do more and she was even more fun to be with. Now they could talk about what they were seeing and discuss what to do next. Charlie could let him know what she wanted to do and Tim was usually happy to oblige her knowing that this almost certainly assured that she would be able to handle the journey, which sometimes took up to three busses each way. He quickly came to realize that his adventures with her, which were now happening two, three or even four times per week, were the highlights of every week. The highlight of his life. Tim was unsure what to think when it began to occur to him that this two and a half year old girl was his best friend, possibly the best friend he had ever had.
The summer before Charlie turned three their adventures took another twist when Tim found a bike with a toddler seat attached to the back at a garage sale. It was more money than the family really had available to spend on something like that but Tim decided to go for it anyway. He hadn’t owned his own bike since his Schwinn 12 speed had been stolen out of the backyard of his family home when he was 15 years old. His purchase of the bike prompted a big fight between he and Sarah which ended, finally, when Tim accused Sarah of being upset only because this left less money for her to spend on alcohol and she retaliated by throwing a full drinking glass across the room, shattering it loudly on the old white plaster wall, and causing Charlie to burst into tears and proclaim “Be nice to daddy!”
After this fight, which had been the most severe of the increasingly frequent arguments between Tim and Sarah, Sarah had left the home and not returned for a full three days. This forced Tim call in sick to work for the first time since Charlie had been born. When she finally did return Sarah sheepishly greeted Tim and went into the bedroom and slept for twelve straight hours. When she woke up Sarah grabbed Charlie and hugged her for a long time and then sat down on the floor laughing and playing with her and her various dolly and animal figurines for over two hours. For the sake of peace in the house, along with his reluctance to start another argument, Tim didn’t bring up Sarah’s tantrum and subsequent absence, knowing full well that she would not bring it up either. It was two weeks before Tim got up the nerve to remind Sarah that he and Charlie needed to buy bike helmets before they could begin riding. Tim had been sure this would lead to another major fight and was surprised and relieved when Sarah agreed readily as if there had never been any reason for doubt.
After this, many of Tim and Charlie’s adventures were on the bike. At first Charlie was scared of the bike but, as she grew used to it, and began to trust Tim’s streadiness more, she would ask to go on bike rides almost everyday. They would ride to many of the same parks they used to take the bus to. Once there Tim would push Charlie on the swings or sit on the bench and watch as she played with the other kids. Sometimes Tim would talk to the other parents while the kids played. Mostly he tried to avoid this but other times he would end up talking to a mom who seemed so calm and easy going that Tim wondered what it would be like if she was Charlie’s mom. He felt guilty thinking this and would quickly force himself to remember that he was a cook at a crappy restaurant while the woman he was talking to was probably married to a lawyer or a doctor and that this was probably exactly why she seemed so happy and relaxed. Still it was nice sometimes to imagine a different life and he learned quite a bit during these conversations about what he was doing well as a parent and what adjustments he could make. Mostly what he leaned from the other parents was that he worried too much.
On particularly hot days Tim would take Charlie to the beach at one of the nearby lakes. Both of them loved to cool off in the water and Tim was always amazed at the trust Charlie would place in him as they splashed in the murky city beach water. Charlie would allow Tim to let go of her as she attempted to float, trusting that he would always scoop her up just before her head dipped below the surface into the unknown of the underwater. Tim always did scoop her up just in time and they would look deep into each others eyes and share again the laughter of pure joy. Tim couldn’t help but wonder if he would always be there to scoop Charlie up when she was about to go under and if they would always feel such joy and happiness in each others simple laughter. When he began to have these thoughts he would shudder as his self doubt often crept in and led him to fear that he would not be able to maintain such a positive relationship with his daughter.
Part of Tim’s self doubt came from what was happening at home between he and Sarah. Although they were both maintaining positive relationships with Charlie, each in their own way, the relationship between them had changed again after the fight they’d had over the bike. Prior to that they had morphed into an unspoken pattern resembling something like roommates with a shared responsibility. They had been pleasant and cooperative towards one and other in coordinating their schedules and various responsibilities as co parents. Tim’s adventures with Charlie had initially seemed to help with this and, although they often went in different directions with different sets of friends, he and Sarah were enjoying more positive moments at home as well. They were sharing more meals, spending occasional time together around the house and on rare occasions, much to Tim’s surprise and delight, had even rekindled the intimate aspects of their relationship. These positive family moments, although few and fleeting, seemed to go completely away after the bike fight.
The general cooperation in terms of coordination of responsibility was still there but the kindness between them appeared to have taken on a sort of forced cordiality like that a person might have with an estranged great aunt who makes them slightly uncomfortable. Any hope of intimacy was apparently gone for ever. When they encountered each other within the home, which was becoming increasingly less common, they would turn sideways and shuffle past without eye contact, like strangers navigating a long unstructured line at the bank. Sarah was going out more and more and, Tim suspected, drinking more than ever. By now Tim had cut back on the amount of time he spent with his friends after work but still when he returned home Sarah would be asleep and he could smell the alcohol in the house. Eventually she stopped even bothering to hide the large plastic bottles of vodka that were her preferred drink. Once or twice Tim had returned from work to find that Sarah had left the house entirely, leaving Charlie sleeping in her bed all alone in the apartment. On these occasions, when Sarah did finally return home, she would walk straight into the bathroom and take a long bath, afterwards avoiding Tim as much as is possible in a small two bedroom apartment, and, as had been the case when Sarah had disappeared after the bike fight, Tim didn’t bring it up and it was never discussed.
This new way of functioning within the home brought with it for Tim an increase in anxiety and feelings of intense loneliness and sadness. Tim dealt with these negative feelings the way he always had, the only way he knew how. He began to smoke a lot of pot. Although he had never fully quit smoking he had cut down quite a bit, saving the habit mostly for times when he was with his friends from work. Now he was smoking in the home, sneaking into the bathroom and blowing the heavy and distinct smelling smoke up through the vents in a vain attempt to hide what he was doing. A part of Tim knew that this was unfair to Charlie and that he was essentially doing the exact same thing Sarah was doing only with a different drug. Another part of him felt that he too deserved something to help him survive his life now that everything except his relationship with his daughter was bringing him nothing other than intense pain. Tim knew he could not handle all of this alone and he justified his pot smoking by telling himself that he was doing it to survive, doing it for Charlie’s sake.
Robert pulled up in front of Tim’s apartment at 7:30 am and cut the engine expecting he would have to wait. To his surprise the door opened and Tim emerged within less that one minute. Robert was also surprised to see that Tim was wearing a nice pair of khaki pants, a reasonably nice collared long sleeved shirt, and a tie. The only other time they had met Tim had been wearing faded unintentionally ripped jeans and a generically black t-shirt. He had worn this outfit in such a way as to suggest that this was his unwavering uniform. Today, dressed up and clean shaven, Tim looked very different. More confident somehow, Robert thought to himself. Good for him.
Robert watched as Tim walked briskly to the front door of the car, opened it, and climbed in without hesitation. Robert offered him his hand.
“Good Morning” he managed.
“Good morning” Tim responded back shaking Robert extended hand.
Robert started the car back up and pulled out into the heavy morning traffic without further comment. They had a two hour drive there and a two hour drive back to look forward to so he knew there would be plenty of time to talk.
“So,” Tim said timidly “just how long of a drive is this anyway?”
“Two hours, give or take, depending on traffic.” Robert responded.
With this news Tim settled back into his seat and began looking out the window. Robert turned the radio to an oldies station that he hoped would be generic enough to satisfy them both. When Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” came on and Robert noticed that both men automatically began to sway to the bass line he figured this station would get them through a good portion of the drive down to South Field. This arrangement lasted about 20 minutes before Robert instinctually began to speak.
“So Tim,” he began “I’m thinking you must have a pretty good mix of nervous and excited going on. I think you said it has been about three years since you and Charlie have seen each other. That’s a long time.”
“Yeah” Tim admitted “I’m basically freaking out. Does she know I’m going to be there today?”
“Good question” Robert answered, “I told Maureen, the unit social worker. I don’t know if she told Charlie or not. What do you expect will happen?”
“I have no idea” Tim admitted. “I just hope she recognizes me.”
“Oh, she will recognize you.” said Robert “She asks about you sometimes you know.”
“She does?” Tim asked with genuine surprise.
“Of course she does” Robert said. “In fact I told her a few months ago that I was going to try to contact you.”
“What did she say to that?” Tim asked.
“Not much really” Robert lied, deciding not to tell Tim that when he first told Charlie of his plan to contact her father her initial response had been that he was probably lost somewhere and that even if Robert could find him he would probably be too high to bother talking to.
This recollection caused a nervous pit to form in Robert’s stomach as he remembered the other conversation he had vowed to have with Tim at some point during the long drive. He knew that without knowing exactly where Tim was at with his current drug use there was no way he could move forward with any real planning for Charlie’s future. Still he was just getting to know Tim and was not quite sure how to go about bringing the subject up. With this thought Robert happily settled back into the easy silence that Tim seemed to prefer.
After abut thirty more minutes of silence Robert decided he was ready for a bathroom stop. Scanning the road for an appropriate exit Tim finally pulled off the freeway at an exit promising a Kwik Trip.
“I’m gonna make a bathroom stop and get some coffee, do you want anything?” Robert asked.
“No thanks, I’m good” Tim answered.
Robert asked him again, this time offering to buy him some coffee or water but again Tim refused. When they pulled up in front of the store Robert hesitated briefly, wondering to himself how he felt about leaving Tim in his car unattended while he went in. To his relief Tim seemed to sense his trepidation and unhinged his seatbelt saying he could stand to use the bathroom after all. After finishing up inside the Kwik Trip Robert and Tim settled back into the car. Sipping lightly at his still too hot to drink coffee Robert pulled the car onto the road and turned the radio back on. Luckily they still got reception on the same station and they settled into another half hour with the only interruption coming from Robert’s occasional slurps of hot coffee.
With less then 40 minutes left in the drive down to South Field Robert decided that he needed to bring up the subject of Tim’s drug use. As soon as he thought of this he could feel that nervous knot building back up in his stomach. The feeling was very similar, Robert noticed, to the feeling that he had always gotten when he was trying to get up the nerve to ask a girl out on a date. With this thought in mind Robert decided on the only strategy that ever worked in this type of situation. He just went for it.
“So, do you still smoke much pot?” Robert asked bluntly.
This seemed to catch Tim off guard, which Robert figured was probably a good thing.
“Sometimes, I guess” Tim sheepishly admitted, “not really very much anymore though.”
Robert let this first part of the conversation sit there quietly for almost a full minute, relived that it was out there at all.
“Here’s the thing Tim,” Robert began. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable or get you in a trap or anything like that. Frankly I don’t really care if you smoke pot or not except in so much as it’s related to Charlie. Charlie is doing better than she has for a long time. Way better actually, and it’s my job to figure out what’s next for her. She needs a place to live and she needs, I believe, some connection to her family. As I’m sure you know her family means you and her mom’s parents. That’s it. So basically what I guess I am asking you is this, I know you have a history of smoking pot, that is a matter of record, I need to know if it’s is going to be a problem?”
Tim was silent for a bit before he answered. Robert could see that Tim was starting to turn kind of pale and was thinking hard about how to answer. Finally he spoke.
“Robert,” Tim began “So far, since I’ve known you, you have been up front with me, at least as far as I can tell, so I am going to try and be up front with you. My life is a mess. I have fucked up everything I have ever had. Including Charlie. And she is, what I guess I could say, the best thing I ever had. I live in a shitty apartment and work part time at a video store. So yeah, I smoke pot. I guess it’s what I have used to get by. If you are telling me I have a chance to have Charlie back in my life, for me to be part of her life, and that I have to stop smoking pot in order for this to happen. Then shit, what can I say? I’ll try. I guess. I don’t know. I lost Charlie because of pot before. Right, you know that right? So I guess we’ll see. All I can say is I will try.”
Robert nodded silently as he absorbed what Tim had just said. He appreciated Tim’s honesty on this and found himself rooting for the guy. In the end, Robert knew, it was going to be up to Tim. It was on him to make the changes needed in his life. All Robert could do is tell him what to expect and what was expected of him. Again they sat in silence for a few minutes before Robert finally spoke.
“Thanks Tim, I do appreciate your honesty and I have tried to be up front with you and will try to continue to do so.” Robert said “I guess we will have to see what happens between you and Charlie and go from there but I will say that from the county’s perspective it would definately be better if you could lay off the pot.”
“Okay,” Tim said. “I have been trying already. Since you came over the other day I have smoked less. Hardly any really.”
“Well,” Robert said smiling now, “I guess that’s a start.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes before Robert turned the radio back on only to discover that the station had turned to static.
“How about something a little heavier than oldies?” Robert asked Tim.
“That would be good” Tim answered, “Real good.”
At that Robert scanned the radio until he found a rock station that came in. Once he got good reception Robert turned the radio up louder than it had been so far on the car ride and they rode the rest of the way down to South Field without talking, each of them deeply silent as their thoughts drifted in rhythm to the music.
Tim could physically feel how nervous he was as he and Robert walked up to the South Field Academy front doors. The drive down had been mostly okay except that Robert had asked him about his pot smoking. Although Tim had expected this question and had already decided that he would be honest if it did come up, having learned before that the truth would come out eventually, he was still hoping it wouldn’t come up quite so soon. Despite this Tim was relieved that the conversation went as well as it did. He felt that he had been honest with Robert who, in turn, had been honest with him. Now, he thought, it was up to him to stop smoking pot all the time so that he could get Charlie bak into his life. Tim felt proud that he had already started this. Since Robert’s visit at his home just a few days ago he’d only smoked pot a few times, mostly at night so he could sleep. Now here he was walking into a building to attend a meeting that his daughter was going to be at. Tim thought about how he had not seen Charlie in over three years. Just the thought of this, the thought of seeing her again, had his heart beating so loud and fast that he figured both he and Robert, or anyone else who happened to be near, could hear it clearly.
As they passed through the doors into the lobby Robert walked directly to the reception area and began to sign himself in. Tim was immedialy struck by how bright it was and he couldn’t help feeling like everyone in the large room was staring directly at him, judging him for his failures as a man and as a father. Robert signaled him over and showed him where to sign his name. As he finished signing his name the receptionist, a large red faced woman with straight grey hair and a practiced smile, handed him a sticker that said “Visitor” in large bold letters.
“Here,” she said “Put this on and have a seat in the waiting room.”
Tim nodded at her weakly and reached out to take the sticker almost recoiling his whole arm in as he noticed that his hands were starting to get damp with his own sweat. He quickly placed the sticker firmly on his chest and sat down by himself in the waiting room. Robert, who had recognized several people as soon as they had arrived, was off somewhere down the hallway talking to one of them. Sitting by himself Tim began to feel like he had made a mistake coming down here. He was going to be stuck at this meeting full of people who knew Charlie and knew how he had screwed her up. He didn’t know her, hadn’t seen her in a such a long time he couldn’t even imagine what she was going to be like, and they all knew her and would be watching him to see when he was going to screw up again. As for Charlie, he wondered, what would she think of him after all this time? Would she be happy to see him? Would she be mad? Would she remember him, or even care that he was there? Tim felt a cold band of sweat rolling down his side and started scanning the room to see how he could get out of the building if he suddenly needed to.
“Hey Tim, I want you to meet Maureen.” Robert said, suddenly standing right in front of Tim with a thirty something aged woman who was wearing nice but casual clothing and holding a hand out for Tim to shake.
“Hi,” Tim responded instinctually, quickly wiping his hands on his pants before meeting her handshake. “I’m Tim, Charlie’s dad.”
“Thanks for coming Tim, we’re very pleased to have you” Maureen said in a relaxed and genuine tone. “Charlie is especially excited to have you here today.”
At this Tim felt his whole body tense. “So she knows?” he asked.
“I told her this morning.” Maureen said, “she’s excited but she’s nervous too. I bet you both are.”
“It’s been three years” Tim said with a tinge of guilt.
‘Maureen is the supervisor of the unit Charlie is on.” Robert said, breaking up the tension. “She has been working with Charlie the whole time she’s been at South Field and has told me that she is doing well right now.”
Tim was starting to relax a little but was unsure what to think about the news that Charlie knew he was going to be at this meeting. He couldn’t decide if this helped him relax because he wouldn’t have to wonder if she would recognize him or if it made him nervous to think about living up to whatever expectations she probably had already set. He was awakened out of his own anxious thoughts by Maureen asking them to follow her to the meeting room.
“We’re meeting in Conference Room B” Maureen said, as if Tim would know what that meant.
Leaving the reception room Tim and Robert fell into line behind Maureen as they walked down a narrow hall past a series of offices, some of them occupied by middle aged professionals who were either talking on the telephone or typing away on computer keyboards. Tim was surprised by how clean and bright everything was. The walls were tastefully covered by colorful paintings of landscapes, animals or children playing. Everyone seemed to be happy and friendly. South Field did not live up to the image Tim had of it as being some sort of prison like place for messed up kids who had nowhere else to go.
As they neared the end of the hallway Maureen pulled out a key and unlocked a door leading into a dark room. She reached into the room from the hallway, switched on the lights, and stepped back into the hall signaling for Tim and Robert to enter the room in front of her. This, Tim knew, was Conference Room B and he could feel his anxiety rise back up in his body as he got closer to the the actual meeting with Charlie. Conference Room B turned out to be a medium sized room with a large circular table in the middle surrounded by book shelves on two sides, a large white board on another, and full wall of windows overlooking a playground bracketed by cornfields opposite the door. Tim, although he was the first one to walk into the room, hesitated once fully inside, looking to Robert for direction. Robert sat down in the seat furthest from the door and settled in as if nothing in the world could possibly go wrong. Tim quickly followed Robert’s lead and sat in the chair next to him and began to desperately search his pockets as if he might find something to help ease his discomfort.
“I always like to sit with my back to the window” Robert joked, “or I will spend the entire meeting looking at whatever is going on outside.
At this statement Tim turned in his chair and began looking out the window, taking some comfort in the lightly clouded blue sky and vast corn fields. He began to think about what he would say to Charlie when she finally came into the room. Tim wondered if he would even be able to speak at all and felt his anxiety spike once again as it occurred to him that he might simply break down into tears.
“Ok, you guys sit tight. I’ll go see if the others are ready and be right back” Maureen said, breaking up Tim’s thoughts as she walked out leaving he and Robert alone in the room.
“How you doing? Robert asked looking up from the papers he had been spreading out in front of him.
“I’m hanging on” Tim responded, trying to convince himself as much as anything. “I just don’t know what to expect, you know what I mean?”
“Just remember that she is as scared of you as you are of her” Robert quipped, prompting Tim to force a smile at the joke.
Tim’s initial reaction to this comment was to be annoyed by the callousness of it. Was Robert completely unaware of what this meant to him or did he simply not care? After letting it settle though Tim saw the wisdom in what Robert had said. It was true, wasn’t it, that Charlie hadn’t seen him in exactly as long as he hadn’t seen her. Might she be just as nervous about seeing him as he was about seeing her? Here he was worried that she wouldn’t recognize him when he knew that the features of her face were burned into his memory forever. It was possible, wasn’t it, that she felt the same way? Suddenly Tim began to be more hopeful about the possibilities this meeting offered.
Just then Tim’s thoughts were interrupted by the door opening. His heart seemed to miss a beat as he snapped his head towards the door looking for Charlie. To his disappointment as well as relief it was only Maureen, alone, carrying a try with coffee, water and cookies.
“No one else is here yet” she said, smiling. “Do either of you want some water or coffee?”
Tim allowed a few seconds for his heart to fall back into a steady pattern before he quietly volunteered that he would appreciate some water. Maureen poured a glass of water and handed it to him, pouring coffee for herself and Robert before siting down. Tim was immediately taken aback by how cold the glass was in his hand and he drank the water greedily as he realized how thirsty he really was. After finishing his water Tim reached forward and grabbed the pitcher, refilled his glass, and replaced the pitcher back on the tray in the middle of the table. Sitting back it occurred to Tim that it may have been rude of him to do this but he quickly let this thought pass as he realized that neither Maureen or Robert seemed even to have noticed. Tim made a point to drink the second glass of water much slower, deciding in advance that he was going to make this one last for the entire meeting. The three of them sat in a uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Maureen finally spoke.
“We are waiting for just a few more people and then we can begin” she said matter of factly. “Once they arrive we can have some introductions and will get started.”
“Sounds good” Robert answered calmly as Tim tried to imagine who else might be coming to the meeting.
Robert had told him to expect several staff members from South Field but Tim didn’t really understand South Field and now, being here for the first time and seeing how poorly it matched what little expectations he did have, he had even less understanding of the place. Tim was struggling to contain his anxiety in the face of this unknown and he had to remind himself again not to drink his water too quickly as he felt his mouth growing dry.
Tim heard the rattle of the doorknob and again snapped his head towards the sound in nervous anticipation of Charlie’s arrival at the meeting. The door opened and two women walked in, greeted Maureen, and sat down. One of these women was an older woman with what Tim thought of as a grandmotherly air about her. The other woman was considerably younger with a kind of current hipness that Tim found immediately intimidating. Tim shrunk into himself further and tried to look away as he felt both women looking directly at him. It was difficult to avoid eye contact with everyone at the same time due to the circular shape of the table and Tim responded by focusing his eyes on the water glass in front of him which he now couldn’t help picking up and taking several more drinks from.
“OK, let’s get started” Maureen said looking around the room at the five people now scattered around the table.
During introductions Tim learned that the older woman, Beverly, was the South Field nurse and the younger woman, Donna, was the primary staff person in charge of Charlie on the unit she lived on. They both had worked with Charlie the whole time she had lived at South Field and seemed genuinely pleased that Tim was at the meeting. This feeling was helpful and Tim could feel himself relax as the meeting began in ernest.
Over the next twenty minutes Tim listened with eager fascination as the staff from South Field updated him and Robert on all the current details of Charlie’s life. They talked abut her general health, that she was on less medication that she has been on since her arrival 13 months earlier and how she was getting along with the other girls on the unit. Maureen reported that Charlie was making progress in therapy, especially in regards to Sarah’s death, and that she was reporting very little urge to cut on herself anymore. Donna told them that Charlie did sometimes get into arguments with the other girls she lived with but that this was not entirely her fault as these other girls had their own issues to deal with. Tim could tell that Donna truly liked his daughter and he was relieved to know that at least some of the people in her life cared for her in some of the ways he knew he should have been able to.
Donna and Maureen were just filling in the details of a recent incident in which Charlie had run away from the building and had to be brought back by the police when Tim noticed that Charlie was standing in the doorway. Just seeing her there caused him to break into a nervous sweat and he could instantly feel tears welling up inside his eyes. He could see that she was a little taken back as well and, for what seemed like much longer than it probably was, the room stopped as the two of them simply looked at each other. Tim was embarrassed by the tears that were now freely running down his cheeks in front of this room full of virtual strangers and he tried in vein to stem the flow with his shirt sleeves. He found himself unable to fully believe that this was indeed Charlie standing before him in the doorway and, judging by the look on her face, she must have felt the same way.
Although she was much bigger,and her hair was longer than Tim remembered it having ever been, there was no mistaking his daughter. He was overcome by how much she had grown, by how she seemingly had gone from a child to a young woman in the time since he’d seen her last and, most of all, how much she now looked like her mother.
“Hi sweetie” Tim said weekly, almost whispering, unable to take his eyes off her.
At this Charlie simply responded “Hi,” with the same lack of force and confidence Tim had spoken with, and began to look around the room for a place to sit. As soon as her eyes settled in on a chair next to Donna she began to move quickly towards it stopping briefly to give Donna a sidearmed hug before sitting. Tim became aware that he was staring at Charlie and made an effort to look away. He was also aware that the other adults in the room had pretty much stopped moving and were watching them both intently to see how their first interaction in three years was going. Charlie, for her part, was sitting now and seemed to be trying as hard as possible to act like having her father as the meeting was no big deal. Tim was relieved when Maureen finally spoke.
“Charlie” Maureen said with exaggerated eagerness “we were just filling Robert and your father in on how well you have been doing.”
“Yeah?” Charlie responded, looking directly at Maureen as she spoke, “what have I been doing that’s so great?”
“Lot’s of things Charlie, you know that” Donna added. “You’ve been doing well in school and mostly getting along with the other kids.”
“Mostly, I guess,” said Charlie, “except with Ashley and Jen.”
“Are Ashley and Jen some of your friends here?” Tim asked, realizing his mistake immedialy.
“No.” Charlie said, the force of her word causing Tim to shrink back into his chair.
The rest of the meeting went pretty well. After his one failed attempt at speaking Tim had decided to stay in the back ground quietly, just happy to be in the same room as Charlie. Happy to be some part of her life again, no matter how small of a part it was. Although Charlie continued to make a point of not acknowledge him in any direct way Tim noticed her sneaking quick looks his way throughout the meeting, each time looking away just as quickly as soon as she noticed him looking back. Once, when he met her gaze, Tim had braved a smile and was delighted when Charlie had briefly returned it before pulling back and glancing down at the table in front of her.
After finishing the review meeting with a discussion of Charlie’s progress in school, her recent inclusion in some South Field community volunteer activities, and her paid job three days a week in the cafeteria, Maureen ended the meeting by saying that Tim and Robert were welcome to stay around to eat lunch with Charlie. Tim was surprised and excited by this opportunity and snuck a hopeful glance Charlie’s way in order to see how she was reacting to this announcement by Maureen. Tim was growing nervous by the silence which was finally broken by Robert who asked Charlie directly if she was ok with this. She responded back that she didn’t care either way and Tim was thrilled when he again saw a shallow smile betraying her true feelings about the prospect of his staying for lunch.
Having lunch with Robert and Charlie was a dream come true for Tim. They had followed her out of Conference Room B to the cafeteria in silence and, as they walked into the large empty room full of long dining tables, Tim felt his anxiety rise yet again as they neared this much more intimate encounter with his estranged daughter. Charlie was polite in directing them to the food line, which was just being set up, and the three of them took their hot ham and cheese sandwiches, with tater tots and green beans, and sat down at one of the tables nearest the window. Initially the conversation was slow with both Charlie and Tim unsure of what to say to each other. Robert was a great help during these awkward moments asking Charlie about school or friends or other topics with an easy manner that Tim really appreciated. Finally Tim began to relax and by the end of the meal he and Charlie were able to speak to one and other with, if not ease, some level of comfort.
The real highlight of the day for Tim came at the end of lunch just before Charlie skipped off back to school. Another young woman approached them to say hello and Charlie, telling them that the woman was another unit staff, had introduced Tim as her dad. This admission by Charlie that he was her dad had seemed so simple yet significant to Tim who again had to fight off tears. Charlie asked the staff person to walk her back to class and gave Tim a brief hug before walking off to school without another word. Just like that, as suddenly as she had arrived she was gone. Tim and Robert bussed their lunch trays, followed the long hallway back to the lobby, and checked out.
Tim was exhausted on the long drive back home. The two men alternated between silence and the radio with very little talking. Robert did ask Tim how he felt things had gone to which Tim replied simply “Pretty good.” In truth Tim was unsure of what to think. He was thrilled to have been able to see Charlie and the prospect of having her back in his life, even if only a little, was exciting to him. On the other hand he was nervous. He didn’t think he could handle the possibility of loosing her again. An even scarier thought was that he would once again let his daughter down. Tim had never forgiven himself for what happened after Sarah’s death and he blamed himself entirely for Charlie having ended up in foster care at all.
Tim was also unsure what to make of Charlie’s reaction to him. She had not rushed up with unfettered enthusiasm, wrapped her arms around his neck and showered him with hugs and kisses as he had secretly hoped. And although Tim had not actually expected this reaction from Charlie he had allowed himself to imagine it just enough to be disappointed by the reaction she had given. Tim had been vigilant in his focus on Charlie once she had joined the meeting and, although she was making a big show of being disinterested in him, he did not think he was imagining that she had snuck secret glances at him throughout. The lunch, he felt, went much better and he was thankful for the opportunity to sit and eat a meal with Charlie even for a short time. He was also encouraged by the fact that she had introduced him as dad and hugged him goodbye. All and all it had been a good meeting.
It was not until they had entered the heavy traffic of the city, indicating that they were almost home, that Tim finally got up enough nerve to ask the question that had been on his mind the entire drive.
“Do I get to see her again?” He spit out, choking on the words as he spoke them.
Robert smiled and said that he hoped so. Robert too, it turned out, had been encouraged by the meeting today and said he was planing to help Tim and Charlie rekindle some kind of relationship and that they would have to see where that took them. As he dropped Tim off in front of the apartment Robert promised him that he would call in the next few days.
“I’ll call Maureen tomorrow” Robert said, “and see if she has a sense of how Charlie feels about what happened today. My guess is that it was pretty intense for her, intense for both of you.”
With that comment, Tim shook Roberts hand, got out of the car and walked into his apartment. He had some serious changes to make he told himself. Serious changes. Tim walked restlessly around his apartment for a few minutes before finally deciding to take a nice long shower. After he was done with the shower Tim spent the rest of the evening sitting on his couch watching television in a distracted daze. He knew that he had to figure a few things out and found himself nervous and excited at the same time just thinking about what the next few days and weeks might bring.
Chapter Twenty One
Walking from the cafeteria back to school with Lindy, a staff from one of the other girls units, Charlie stopped suddenly and looked back to where just a few minutes earlier she had been eating lunch with her dad. This was the first time Charlie had seen her dad in about three years and she wasn’t yet sure what to think of the experience.
“I need to see Donna.” Charlie announced.
Lindy tensed up, apparently trying to decide how to respond.
“How about you go back to school and I will let her know you want to talk to her when school gets out?”
Charlie didn’t like this answer and could immediately feel her heart rate quicken as she glared at Lindy to show her displeasure. She had just learned that morning that she was going to see her father and seeing him like that had confused her. She knew that Lindy couldn’t possibly understand what it is like to have a dead mom and a dad who smokes so much pot that no one will let you live with him. She was glad to see her dad but she was mad at him too. Why couldn’t he just get his shit together so she could live with him and get out of this place that was full of all these rules and dumb girls. She really needed to see Donna right now and Lindy wouldn’t let her.
“I really need to see Donna. Now!” Charlie repeated, desperately trying to convince Lindy of how important this was.
“I don’t even know where she is right now” Lindy said nervously, “ I think she’s in a meeting.”
“You’re lying” Charlie said “She’s just back at the unit working on daily reports. She told me.”
“I don’t know Charlie” Lindy said, defeated.
Charlie could sense that Lindy was was loosing energy for this argument. Although she really did want to talk to Donna about her dad, Charlie was now much more focused on the distraction of the conflict. She had always liked Lindy but right now she was ready to keep up this fight until the end. Charlie wanted what she wanted and she wanted it on her own terms.
“Listen Charlie,” Lindy said sharply with renewed conviction in her voice, “you need to get back to school. Donna will be there when you get back and you can talk to her then.”
This comment made Charlie feet trapped. Lindy wasn’t going to let her see Donna. That was suddenly clear. Charlie was not going to just go to school and wait. She was really getting mad now and she balled up her fists and began to breathe heavily and loudly. Lindy seemed to sense what was happening and took a step forward holding up her hands signaling for Charlie to stop. Charlie had to get out of here. She looked around her to see who else was near and, seeing that they were alone in the hallway, she turned away from Lindy and began to run. Lindy didn’t even bother to chase her.
Charlie ran without looking back. She passed open offices and staff who were walking in the hallway. Maureen was standing with a stack of paper outside of her office and Charlie briefly made eye contact with her as she ran past. Charlie was now focused only on finding Donna and ran strait up to look for her. When she finally got to the unit Charlie tried to slow down so she could act casual as she walked into the common area. Donna, who was sitting at the staff desk writing in the daily log books, looked up and was startled as she noticed Charlie standing there before her. As soon as she saw Donna, Charlie broke down into tears and approached her with her arms outstretched seeking a hug.
“What’s up Charlie?” Donna asked, holding her ground.
“I don’t know” Charlie said, surprising even herself with the honesty of this answer. “I just really needed to talk you.”
Donna let this sink in for a moment before responding.
“I’m glad you feel you can trust me Charlie, I am.” Donna paused again before she continued “but I’m wondering where you are supposed to be right now?”
“School” Charlie sniffled, “but I…”
‘Did you get permission to come up here?” Donna asked, cutting Charlie off mid sentence.
“No, but I just needed to…” Charlie answered nervously.
“Look Charlie” Donna said, interrupting her again “I get that today has been a doozy for you. And I’m happy to talk with you about that but you need to do this the right way. You know that.”
Just then Lindy walked in with a tentative look on her face and Maureen close behind her. Charlie and Donna looked up in unison. Charlie tensed up at seeing that the two woman had followed her up to the unit. For a moment no one spoke. Donna finally broke the silence.
“Well, it looks like reinforcement has finally arrived” she quipped.
Charlie relaxed a little at this joke and was further relieved to see that all three women were smiling.
“What are we gonna do now? Maureen asked.
“I can’t go back to school now” Charlie said, desperately stating her case. “I just really really need to talk to Donna.”
At this Donna closed the log book she was working on and stood up.
“I’ll tell you what” she said, looking directly at Charlie as if the two of them were the only ones in the room. “I have some work to finish and you, it seems, are not where you’re supposed to be.”
“I can’t go back to school” Charlie protested again.
Donna was unfazed.
“If you reach deep down and somehow muster the strength to finish out the school day, I will work super fast to finish these books so that just the two of us can go for a little walk after school before social group starts.”
Charlie looked closely at Donna to see if she was serious about this offer and then looked at Maureen and Lindy to see if they would agree to this plan as well.
“Thanks Donna,” Maureen said smiling “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me”
“Why can’t we just go for a walk right now” Charlie asked with little conviction in her voice “you can finish the work later can’t you?”
Donna sat back down at the desk and opened her log book back up before answering.
“That’s my offer Charlie, take it or leave it.”
Charlie looked again at the other women to see if there was any hope of a better option.
‘Look Charlie,” Maureen said in that gentle voice of hers that seemed to make everyone agree with her. “We understand that today has been difficult for you and I actually think it would be a good idea for you to go for a walk with Donna to talk about all the things you are going through. But I also know that you can’t keep running away from your responsibilities every time something difficult comes up in your life. I thought you did great at the meeting today and I was proud of you for having the courage to eat lunch with your dad the way you did. I really was. Now it’s up to you to show us that you can handle this.”
Charlie could tell she wasn’t going to get out of school. Besides, she told herself, the day was almost over anyway.
“I just really don’t know if I can handle school” she said, giving it one last try.
“I think you can” Maureen said lightly, “besides” She continued “Lindy deserves another chance to try to walk you to school don’t you think?”
“I’m pretty sure I can do it this time” Lindy said, laughing “What do you say Charlie, will you show me the way from this unit to the school?”
“You know the way” Charlie said, rolling her eyes as she began to walk out.
‘Hey Charlie,” Donna called after them just as they were leaving, “I’ll see you in a little while and you had better apologize to Lindy or I’ll make you clean Ashley and Jen’s room.”
“Sorry Lindy” Charlie said in a rehearsed tone.
“It’s ok” Lindy responded, just as mechanically, “I know it was nothing personal.”
The rest of the school day was a blur. Charlie was fidgety and unfocused the entire time. She snapped at anyone who spoke to her and was barely able to finish a simple quiz in reading class despite having actually done the homework the night before. When Clint stopped by her desk on the way out of class Charlie was rude to him, not even noticing who it was until it was too late and he had walked off making a comment beneath his breath about her being a stuck up bitch. She just kept thinking about her dad and all the memories that seeing him had brought up for her. She expected to be focused on all the bad stuff, the times he left her alone or was too high to help cook dinner, or the arguments they’d had about her clothes that were old and and tattered and didn’t even fit. She had thought seeing him would make her think about her mom and the night of the accident when all the adults scrambled to try to figure out what to tell her even though she had already heard them saying that her mom was dead through her bedroom door. How she had sat there alone in the dark on the worst night of her life dazed and crying all by herself. She thought that seeing her dad would bring up these same dark thoughts that she had thought about a million times before over the past few years.
Instead, seeing her dad had brought up all new memories. Memories that had truly been forgotten, or at least that she thought had been forgotten. She remembered laughing so hard she almost wet her pants as she and her dad had traded favorite lines from the movie Shrek while waiting in line at the grocery store. She remembered the Christmas after her mom died when her dad had wrapped up one of her mom’s favorite rings in a little box and had given it to her when they were alone after her grandparents finally left for the night. Charlie had cried that night, really cried, and even though she had cried many times in the months since the accident, it was the first time crying had felt good instead of scary or painful. She remembered the times before her mom died when she and her dad had gone just the two of them on field trips all over the city. How they always had fun together even if they did go to the same places over and over again and usually didn’t have any money to spend.
Charlie was surprised, sitting there in class, that she had forgotten how her dad’s smile, when he really smiled at her, could brighten her whole world. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen that smile. The smile that everyone used to tell her she had too, the one that she knew meant that she was everything to him. Even when they had lived together, near the end, Charlie now realized, he had never smiled like that. Not like he had when she was a little kid. But today he had. Twice. Once when he had caught her glancing at her during the meeting and again, right before he had left, when she had introduced him to Lindy.
Charlie was so confused. She didn’t know what it all meant. Was this a one time thing or would she see him again? Was she going to go live with him again? Did he still smoke pot all the time? Did she even want to go live with him. This is what she needed to talk to Donna about. Maybe Donna would know something and be able to tell her. Charlie was having a difficult time sorting out her feelings about this. She felt like running away and like jumping for joy all at the same time. It occurred to her for the first time in months that she could cut on herself. She almost laughed out loud during class as she caught herself looking around the room for something sharp she could use to cut with. She was especially unsure what to think about this because, she realized, the thoughts she was having were not the dark sad thoughts that had always driven her to cut in the past but instead were happy memories that for some reason, maybe because she was not used to them anymore, seemed even more difficult to think about.
Donna was ready to go, as promised, as soon as Charlie got back to the unit from school. Charlie rushed into her bedroom to change into clothes comfortable for waking then grabbed a granola bar from the snack closet and they were off. She was pleased when Donna suggested that they take to long path around the corn field that started out behind the main South Field building and ended on the shore of a small river. Donna had taken Charlie on walks before but usually it was on a much shorter path that circle the campus without leaving the grounds. Charlie knew that this longer path would take them up until almost dinner time and she was very glad to have Donna all to herself for such a long chunk of time.
“So I guess today was a pretty interesting day for you huh?” Donna finally said after they had walked the first few hundred yards in syncopated silence.
“I don’t know? I guess” Charlie answered, trying to downplay her obvious reaction to having seen her dad earlier in the day.
At this comment Donna smiled knowingly at Charlie, looking her directly in the eyes until Charlie had no choice but to smile back. The smiles broke into laughter as Charlie realized that she couldn’t slip anything past the young woman who had been her closest confidant and favorite staff since the moment they had met on Charlie’s second day at the treatment center.
“If you want to know the truth?” Charlie admitted “Seeing my dad today totally fucked me up.”
Donna let the swear word pass, as she usually did, before simply asking Charlie what she meant by that.
“I mean, I haven’t even seen my dad in three years. Three years. That’s a long time. And then I find out just this morning that he is coming here to South Field to my review meeting. I didn’t even get a chance to prepare for seeing him. No one even asked me if I wanted to see him. That’s the most fucked up part. What if I didn’t ever want to see my dad again and then all of the sudden, there he was?”
“Well, did you?” Donna asked.
“Did I what?” Charlie asked back.
“Want to see him?” Donna stated incredulously.
Charlie stopped where she was on the path and looked back past Donna at the building her dorm unit was in. It was one of those perfect midwestern late September days when the sky is intensely blue, the leaves are every shade of earthen tone available to nature and the air feels so comfortable that it is almost like it is not there at all. She bent down to examine a leaf that had landed alone in the middle of the trail and picked it up, admiring both sides of it before handing it to Donna.
“Hells yeah, of course I wanted to see him,” she finally stated, “he’s my dad isn’t he?”
Donna only nodded and smiled before bending over to pick up another fallen leaf from the short grass next to the foot path and handing it to Charlie as if she were settling a debt.
“That’s what I thought” Donna said as she turned her back away from Charlie and continued further down the path away from the campus buildings.
Charlie let Donna get ahead a little bit before skipping in order to catch up with her. Once they were even on the path Charlie slowed her pace and the two of them walked again in silence until they had passed onto the far side of the corn fields, completely out of sight from the large buildings and within earshot of the slow but audible river. Charlie had a flashing image of a walk she and her dad had taken on a similar fall day along the shore of the Mississippi River many years ago when her mom had still been alive. Charlie was impressed by the force of this sudden memory that included very specific details like her dad slipping a foot into the river by mistake as they tried to jump a small muddy stream and that they had stopped at dairy queen afterwards and split a strawberry and banana Blizzard, a rare treat that her dad said was to celebrate the extra day of summer they had been granted.
Charlie felt a few tears well up in her eyes and tried to literally shake this memory from her head with a quick twitching motion that only made her dizzy and caused her to wander off the path. Fortunately Donna had been slightly in front of her so she did not notice either the tears or the sudden folly into the woods. Charlie appreciated Donna’s willingness to walk in silence and let her decide when and what to talk about without forcing her to answer a bunch of dumb questions like some of the other staff tended to do. Charlie dried her eyes with the sleeves of her shirt and waited until she could tell that the evidence of her tears had all vanished before speaking again.
“Donna,” she began ,“why is this so hard?”
“I don’t know Charlie,” Donna answered, putting a gentle hand on Charlie’s shoulder as she spoke. “It’s just one of those things in life that’s hard I guess.”
“I just miss him so much” Charlie continued, no longer able to hold back the flood of tears that were now pouring down both of her cheeks. “And I miss my mom too.”
Donna stopped waking and grabbed Charlie’s hands into hers as the girl spoke through her sobs.
It’s not fair you know, to have a mom who is dead and a fuck up for a dad. I get so mad at him some times, you know. But I love him too and I know he loves me but he also loves drugs I think,” Charlie paused to kick at a stick that was in front of her on the path before finishing her thought, “I just don’t know what is going to happen.”
“I know Charlie, I don’t either and I…” Donna began.
“Maybe I could just live with you” Charlie said, suddenly hopeful.
“I don’t know what’s next for you Charlie, I wish I could help you with that” Donna responded, seemingly ignoring Charlie’s previous comment, “but I do know this, you have grown up a lot since you have been here and I believe you are ready to handle whatever ‘next’ turns out to be.”
“I was going to cut today” Charlie said with a sudden tinge of defiance in her voice.
“Did you? Donna asked calmly.
“No, but I wanted to” Charlie said.
“But you didn’t, Charlie, and that’s my point.” Donna said, holding her gaze directly into Charlie’s eyes until Charlie’s face broke into a slight smile.
The Rest of the walk Charlie and Donna alternated between silence and easy conversations about movies or music. Charlie tried to get Donna to admit that she didn’t like Ashley and Jen but Donna refused to do so, saying only that she liked all the girls. When they got to the river they spent a few extra minutes there, staying to throw rocks and sticks into the water as it passed by. They walked back at a much quicker pace as they both began to feel a chill in the air without the benefit of direct afternoon sunlight. By the time they did finally return it was time for Charlie’s dinner and the end of Donna’s shift. Donna thanked Charlie for a nice walk and Charlie felt herself relax from having had the chance to talk about some of the thoughts she was having in the wake of the surprise visit from her dad. Things got even better for Charlie when she realized that not only was it pizza night but both Ashley and Jen had left for an evening activity and would not return until just before bedtime. “I just might make it through this crazy day after all” Charlie thought as she sat down next to a new girl named Erin and began to eat pepperoni Pizza like it was the last food on earth.
While Robert was an intern at the county he took on three cases that, by the end of the year, he pretty much managed independently. On his first day as a paid employee he was given twenty-four new cases bringing his total case load up to twenty seven. Because he had gone through much of the training as an intern and because, he found out later, they had suspected that he would be hired all along and had trained him with this in mind from the start, Robert hit the ground running. Literally. His first few weeks on the job he was averaging three or four meetings per day throughout the large metropolitan county. Some of his meetings were outside of the city and had required a considerable amount of driving just to get to the meeting site. Robert attacked this new challenge with the same dedication that had served him well in graduate school. He made a point of personally meeting every kid on his case load within the first two weeks. He promised them, sometimes naively, that he would stay in contact with each of them on a regular basis. He also made it a point to connect with the families of each kid. He spoke to every parent or legal guardian at least by phone prior to seeing the kid and made every effort to meet as many of them as possible in person within the first few weeks as well.
One of the new cases he was given that first day was a 12 year old girl named Charlie Foxx. At the time of Robert’s assignment to Charlie’s case she was in the hospital for out of control behavior including self injury. The previous case worker had given the case up saying she didn’t have the energy for this kind of kid anymore and that, although she understood that Charlie had drawn a low card in the family department, she didn’t feel like Charlie was even trying to be happy anymore. Robert’s new supervisor, Randy Blake, a tall, direct and intimidating man, had confided in Robert that the problem was that the other worker only liked working with younger kids and Charlie was turning into a teenager. Randy told Robert that Charlie would indeed be a difficult case, one that he himself had worked before being promoted to supervisor, but that it would be a case that he thought could use the kind of energy a newly hired social worker might bring to the table.
Robert found some time on what turned out to be a very cold winter day to go introduce himself to this new girl Charlie that had come to him with such fan fare. It was an exciting homecoming of sorts for Robert on another level as well because the hospital unit Charlie was on was the same unit he had worked on as a first year intern just a little over a year earlier. Now Robert was returning as a real social worker, an equal rather than as a student, and it was with a sense of pride and accomplishment, along with a weird tinge of trepidation, that he walked up to the familiar door and pushed the buzzer announcing his arrival.
After a few rounds of handshakes and head nods from various people Robert recognized, along with a brief bout of disappointment in learning that the social worker who had supervised his internship was out sick that day, Robert was ready to meet another one of his new clients for the first time. The hospital staff led him into a small room with a tiny table surrounded by thee hard chairs and asked him to wait for them to bring Charlie down. Because he had spent the past week doing this very thing, introducing himself to kids as their new social worker, he knew that this initial meeting could go a few different ways. Some kids were excited to meet him, hopeful that this was the worker who could finally lift them out of the hell they lived in. Some kids were saddened or even hostile at the prospect of meeting yet another new adult who would be placing expectations on them and then ultimately be disappointed by them. Many of the kids were simply indifferent, having had so many adults come in and out of their lives that it barely even registered as interesting anymore. Robert had read Charlie’s case history so he was not surprised when she landed in this last category.
After about twelve minutes of sitting alone in the tiny room a hospital staff that Robert had never met before led a small girl with snarled mid length brown hair and what looked to be a perpetual frown on her face into the room and asked her to sit at the table opposite Robert.
“Hi Charlie, I’m Robert your new social Worker” he said, offering her a hand shake.
Charlie ignored the handshake and responded with a long drawn out process of looking at everything in the room except Robert. Finally she spoke in a quite, almost unintelligible voice.
“How long until you get replaced too?” she asked.
“That’s a fair question, I think.” Robert answered, “a very fair question.”
After this Charlie went a little easier on Robert, but not by much. Robert told her he appreciated her time and that she would be seeing him around from time to time. Before leaving Robert gave Charlie his business card and told her she could call anytime she wanted to. At this Charlie looked up and from the table and directly at Robert for the time since she had sat down across from him.
“Really?” she asked, with a look of genuine surprise on her face.
“Really” Robert replied, “Does that surprise you?”
“Yeah, I guess a little” she answered.
“Well, I mean it” he said, standing up to leave. “Call anytime.”
With this Robert smiled, waved goodbye, and started to walk out of the room.
“Hey” Charlie said, stopping Robert before he got away. “What did your say your name was again?”
“Robert” he said, impressed that she had the guts to admit she had already forgotten.
“Robert,” Charlie said as if it were a foreign sounding name she had never heard before, “you seem like you might be okay.”
Charlie called two days later to ask Robert if he remembered her and to double check if she was really allowed to call him. He said yes to both questions. Charlie then asked if he would help her get out of the hospital as soon as possible. Robert promised her that he would do the best he could and thanked her before ending the call. She was quickly becoming one of his favorite cases.
The next day, when he found some time, Robert called the hospital to see how ready for discharge they felt Charlie was and if they had any suggestions for where she should go live next.
“Well, she can’t go back to live at the last foster home,” the voice on the other end of the line said, “I guess if I were you I would look for another foster home.”
And so that was exactly what Robert did. He contacted the county foster care unit as well as three private foster care agencies looking for a home that might be a good fit for this 12 year old girl with a rocky family history, a few foster homes under her belt, and a tendency to cut herself when she was upset. Eventually his work paid off and he found the home of John and Nichole Middleton. The Middleton’s lived in a modest home across the river in St. Paul and had spent the last ten years specializing in working with girls like Charlie. Robert immediately believed he had found a perfect fit and began making plans to move Charlie from the hospital to the Middleton foster home as soon as possible.
Those first few weeks as a full time social worker Robert was putting in at least 60 hours per week, sometimes many more. For him this had felt like a reduction in work time compared to just a month earlier when he had been a full time graduate student with a part time internship. Robert’s social life was down to almost nothing anyway now that Abby had left town to take the Chicago job. He had been so busy the past few years with school, and then with his relationship with Abby, that his friends pretty much considered it lucky if he joined them occasionally for their weekly poker game. Now, with a new job and little to do socially, Robert was almost glad to have the distraction of an unworkably large case load and a very fast learning curve. He dove head first into his first full time real social work job.
Eventually Robert’s frantic pace settled down some as he finally connected with everyone on his caseload. His overall hours had come back to a reasonable pace and he was starting to notice how little he had to do outside of work. Robert was realizing that he essentially had forgotten how to have unstructured free time. He found that he was, at times now, a little bored and sometimes even a little lonely. He decided that he needed a hobby or at least something to do.
Robert’s began to reconnect with friends that he hadn’t seen in a long time, or at least had seen very little of. He started going out to bars to see music or to just hang out three or four nights a week, sometimes staying out much too late and getting very little sleep. To counter this he would come home from work other nights, eat dinner and go to bed as early as six or seven o’clock. Robert’s life was a whirlwind. His job was intense and now, suddenly, his social life was almost as intense.
After about two months of this lifestyle a friend fixed Robert up on a blind date with a woman named Naomi. Naomi was a few years younger than Robert and, he quickly realized, had very little in common with him. They didn’t like the same music or movies or really the same anything. Halfway through the date Robert realized that the way he had been living his life these past months was all in order to help him ignore the real issue he was facing, that he missed Abby. Robert got through the date by drinking, the one thing that he figured out he and Naomi could do together with a reasonable level of compatibility. He ended up having a good time that night despite the early realization that this would be the only date he and Naomi would ever go on, perhaps because of this realization.
Later that night, after a long cab ride home that included dropping his date off on the way, Robert decided to call Abby. It took him almost a half hour to work up the nerve to finally call her so it surprised him when she answered the phone on the third ring. Despite the fact that they had not spoken at all in over three months and it was past midnight, Abby seemed genuinely pleased the speak to him. They talked for almost two hours, sharing stories from their respective new jobs and the struggles they both were having simply relaxing after having been used to always having something to read or write hanging over their heads. Robert laughed, really laughed, with Abby and when they finally said their goodbyes he was comforted in a way he hadn’t been for a long time. That night he slept soundly, taking advantage of Saturday morning to sleep in later than he had in a long time. When Robert finally woke up the next day he felt especially refreshed and energized and made a personal commitment to work his job at a pace he could maintain and stay connected to Abby one way or another.
After Charlie had been in the hospital for about six weeks one of the nurses came into her room and told her the big news. She was ready for discharge and her social worker had already found her a new foster home to live in. Charlie received this news with mixed emotions. She was glad to leave the hospital where all there was to do each day was listen to the other kids on the ward yell at each other, yell at staff, and cry about just about anything and everything. It seemed like at least once per hour someone threatened to ether kill themselves or kill someone else. Charlie was not going to miss this place one bit. One the other hand the prospect of going to another foster home was downright terrifying. Where would it be? What would it be like? Would there be other girls there? Where would she go to school? Finding out that she was leaving soon seemed to bring up more questions than it answered. This news immedialy got Charlie worked up.
Charlie reacted by running around the unit, sliding back and forth across the slippery floor in her hospital socks, and telling everyone who would listen that she was out of there. At this point Charlie did not know if she was leaving in two weeks or two hours, only that she was leaving. This did not stop her from picking arguments with several kids whom she had disliked since the moment she had arrived. The unit staff finally put an end to her rampage when she told a boy who had threatened suicide pretty much everyday since his arrival that he either needed to “shut the fuck up or kill himself already.” She was discharged three days later.
On the morning that she was to leave Charlie called her grandma for the first time in over a year. She talked to her grandma about how scared she was and how she had cut herself at the last foster home. Charlie could hear her grandma crying on the other end of the phone as she told her that she didn’t want to cut herself anymore and that she wished that she could just live with either her and grandpa or with her dad. They both were crying by the time the topic of Charlie’s mom came up. The conversation ended with Charlie asking her grandma if she could ever live with her and with her grandma saying she would have to talk to grandpa but that it was unlikely to work out.
Charlie’s social worker, Robert, arrived less than fifteen minutes after the phone call with grandma to find a still unpacked and red eyed Charlie sitting in her room staring into space. Robert simply sat down and allowed Charlie to speak or not speak and to pack at her own pace. It took her about forty-five minutes to pack and, after a short discharge meeting, they were on the road to the new foster home.
Charlie perked up during the car ride, choosing not to mention the phone call with her grandma at all. Instead she was animated, even bubbly, telling Robert about her favorite movies, talking about the kind of friends she was going to make at her new school, and that she hoped that the foster home would have a dog or, at least, a cat. Robert, who had confided to Charlie that this was the first time he had ever brought a kid to a new foster home, was quiet during most of the drive saying only that he thought that Charlie would like this home and that he hoped she could stay here for a long time. By the time they pulled up in front of the home, a large white victorian with a large yard and badly in need of a paint job, they were both visibly nervous. They sat together in silence for five full minutes before finally venturing up to the house.
John and Nicole Middleton were both there waiting at the door as Charlie and Robert walked up. Charlie was immediately relieved, not only by the calm and gentle appearance of both of her new foster parents, but also by the fact that both a dog and a cat were there next to them to great her arrival. The dog, a black and white mutt named Kirby, pushed his way past the adults in the doorway, wagging his tail as he ensured that he would be the first one to officially welcome Charlie to her new home. Charlie spotted the cat, Lily, hiding underneath the front door bench as she bent down and let Kirby eagerly lick her face. This initial response from the entire family, animals included, helped to put both Charlie an Robert at ease as all six of them walked through the entry way and into the living room.
After a brief conversation about basic house rules and what school they would register Charlie for the next day, Robert said goodbye and Charlie found herself suddenly alone in the home of these people she had just met. Despite an initial reaction telling her that she could trust them and that she would even like them, Charlie was worried, unsure of what to expect next. Her anxiety reduced some when Nicole, her new foster mom, told her that the policy when new foster kids first arrived was to take it easy, watching movies and ordering whatever kind of pizza the kid liked. Things seemed to get even better when both adults broke into a smile as Charlie informed them she preferred pineapple and pepperoni on her pizza. They told Charlie that this was the kind of Pizza they liked as well and that she was the first kid in ten years who had ever chosen it.
Next they showed Charlie to her new bedroom and let her settle in by spending some time alone to unpack what little belongings she had with her. Charlie’s new room was on the second floor overlooking a large maple tree in the backyard. The bed was nice and soft and there was a large empty dresser, a closet, and a bookshelf full of more books than Charlie had ever seen outside of school or a library. Charlie was exhausted from what had already been a very intense day and she ended up falling asleep on her new bed for a while before John Middleton woke her up to come downstairs to eat pizza and pick out a movie. Charlie was amazed at the number of movie options the family had and after dinner she chose to watch The Little Mermaid because it always reminded her of her mom.
The next few weeks were a blur for Charlie as she settled into her new life with
the Middleton’s. Robert visited several times to make sure that Charlie was doing okay and, after three long days of staying around the house with John, who stayed home while Nicole worked during the day, Charlie was finally able to start school.
She liked her new school immediately, mostly because of a girl named Vanessa, who had gone out of her way to be nice to Charlie, giving her someone to sit with at lunch and laugh with between classes. Charlie found that she really liked the Middleton’s, especially John with whom she seemed to have a natural connection. Charlie enjoyed the fact that she was the only foster kid in the home and that they took her all over the city to museums, interesting restaurants, movies, and even a baseball game.
Charlie was unsure if it was because she was happy at the Middleton’s, or if it was because of the new medicine that she was taking, but she was sleeping well now, without nightmares, and had not had any serious thoughts about cutting on herself since leaving the hospital. On the rare occasions that it did occur to her it felt more like a silly fleeting thought, like dreaming about having her own unicorn or wondering if she could fly when she walked over a tall bridge. It was more something that occasionally occurred to her as an option she immediately knew she would not choose.
For the first time in her life Charlie was allowed to have a friend come over to her home, something she had never done before, even when her mom was still alive. Some days after school Vanessa would come over and the two girls would go up to Charlie’s room to giggle about boys, work on homework and practice drawing. After a while the girls would go down for dinner where Nicole and John would ask them about school while they fed them foods they both liked such as macaroni and cheese or chicken fingers and tater tots. A few times Charlie was even allowed to have her friend, the first best friend she had ever really had, sleep over. The first time Vanessa slept over Charlie was unsure of what was going to happen and became so nervous she almost had to cancel. She had relaxed some when Vanessa finally arrived and the two girls were allowed to set up sleeping bags on the living room floor and spend the whole night watching movie after movie from the Middleton’s large video library until they both finally fell asleep during the middle of Spy Kids Two.
Robert continued to call or visit, checking up on Charlie to make sure she was doing okay or attending school meetings on occasion to make sure she was getting along with the other kids and keeping up with her work. It was on one of Robert’s visits to the foster home that he surprised Charlie by telling her that he had spoken to her Grandma Carol. He told her that her grandma had called him out of the blue one day saying she had gotten his phone number from the nurse at the hospital unit Charlie had been at over four months earlier. Robert told Charlie that her grandma had told him only that she was pleased that she was doing so well and that she was still trying to figure out a way to be a bigger part of her life. Charlie received this news of her grandmother having contacted Robert with excitement and unease, anxious to have more contact with her family but also apprehensive about making any changes to her life which was finally going as smoothly as it had gone for a long time.
A few days after this Charlie called her grandma herself. The conversation was basically a repeat of the conversation they’d had the day she was discharged from the hospital. The one difference was that towards the end of the conversation Charlie asked her grandma directly if it was possible for her to come move in with her and grandpa. Grandma Carol had reacted to this question nervously, quickly changing the subject, and ending the phone call shortly afterwards. Although Charlie had noticed the apprehension in her grandma’s voice, she also noticed that her grandma had not said no.
That evening Charlie had her first real fight with Nicole and John Middleton. At dinner, which was usually a relaxed and happy event in this home, Charlie was tense and quiet, and when John asked her if she had any homework to complete that night Charlie snapped for him to mind his own damn business. Not being used to this behavior from their now settled in foster child, both parents immediately grew worried looks on their faces, looking in unison at Charlie with concern. All three of them paused in awkward silence until Nicole finally asked Charlie if anything was wrong and if she wanted to talk about it. Charlie responded to this question as if it had been a full scale attack. She leaped from her seat, dumping her virtually untouched bowl of white chicken chili half on the floor and half on her pants. Adding the shock and discomfort of the hot soup only worked to further enrage Charlie who screeched “I hate it here” at her bewildered foster parents before running up to her bedroom, slamming the door, and throwing herself onto her bed in a blinding stream of tears.
John and Nicole checked on Charlie briefly after her outburst but did not attempt to speak to her for over an hour. Finally John knocked on her door and asked if she was ready to deal with people. Charlie, exhausted from her outburst and subsequent crying, nodded shyly before looking away, embarrassed from what she had done and what she had said. As John gently walked into her room, sitting on the floor at the foot of her bed near the open door, Charlie wondered if he was going to ask her to pack her things up and move out because of what had happened. What he said instead surprised and relaxed her.
“Sometimes I hate it here too.” he said finally. “Did you know that I am actually from California? It’s true. And now sometimes, especially in the winter when it is so dark and cold, I really hate it here.”
At this Charlie perked up some as she found the courage to look at John while he spoke. He continued by telling her that he had actually felt the same way when he lived in California. How that had been part of the reason he moved to Minnesota in the first place. The two of them then spent most of the next hour talking about how even when a person likes a place, and likes the people who live there, it is normal to sometimes hate being there when it isn’t exactly where you want to be. Charlie relaxed more when he told her that every foster daughter that had ever lived with them had felt the same way and that they had witnessed hundreds of outburst exactly like the one Charlie had at dinner than night. Charlie told John about the conversation she’d had with her grandma earlier in the day and how it seemed like her grandma didn’t want her. She talked to him for the first time about her mom and how much she missed her and how she hadn’t talked to her dad since before she moved into the last foster home and how she didn’t understand why she couldn’t just live with him. Charlie felt tears once again rolling down her cheek as she spoke about these things and she felt a knot build in the pit of her stomach as she admitted to John that she didn’t hate living with him and Nicole but that she did miss her family and wished she could live with them. How she wished that things could just be the way they had been when she was little.
After this conversation Charlie apologized to both John and Nicole and, realizing now how hungry she was from missing dinner, ate two full bowls of the chicken chili that Nicole heated up for her. While she ate Charlie sat at the kitchen table wondering which of them had cleaned up the mess she made earlier. After eating this warm meal all three of them went into the living room to watch American Idol together, a tradition they had adhered to for over a month now. Charlie sat on the floor so that Kirby and Lily could fight each other for the prime position on her lap. Somewhere during an especially bad version of a song Charlie had never heard before anyway she decided that she really didn’t hate it here with the Middleton’s but that she was not going to stop dreaming about living with her family either. John had taught her that she could be happy and wish for something different at the same time. Wherever I live though, she thought as she stroked Kriby’s soft fur, they better at least have a dog and a cat.
Charlie waited a week before she called Robert to tell him about the conversation she’d had with her grandma. She left out the part about her major meltdown at dinner only letting him know that she had asked if she could live with her grandparents and that her grandma had been kind of weird about it. Robert surprised her by saying that he had talked to her grandma about this too, that they had even spoken since the phone call Charlie was telling him about, and that the idea of Charlie living with them was one of the things that Robert and Grandma Carol had discussed. Robert told Charlie that this was something the adults would need to talk more about and that he promised to let her know as soon as he spoke to her grandma again.
After this Charlie settled back into her regular routine, going to school, hanging out with Vanessa, and doing a wide variety of things with the Middleton’s who continued to be a bottomless pit of ideas about places they could go and things to do and see. Charlie was learning how to cook, something that she had figured out Nicole Middleton excelled at. The first recipe Charlie wanted to learn was the White Chicken Chili that had helped get her through the first and only tantrum she’d had since arriving at the Middleton’s nearly six months earlier. True to his word Robert continued to speak to her grandmother and would tell Charlie whenever he did, updating her that, although they did in fact talk about her going to live with them, there were still issues that needed to be sorted out. Charlie, who had be having regular phone calls with her grandma herself but had been reluctant to bring this subject up again, was surprised when it was her grandma who finally did so. Charlie’s grandma admitted that the reluctance was on the part of her grandpa who did not want to go through the experience of living with a teenage girl again after barley surviving Charlie’s mother’s teenage years. Just the mention of Sarah had put both Charlie and her grandma into a somber mood, essentially ending the phone call. Still the call had ended ended on a positive note with Charlie’s grandma promising to keep working on her grandpa in hopes of convincing him.
Two weeks later Robert called to let Charlie know that they were planning an overnight visit at her grandparent’s house. The plan, he told her, was that the Middleton’s would drive her to her grandparent’s immediately after school on the upcoming Friday where she would spend the night and the most of the next day with her grandparents who would then drive her back to the Middleton foster home sometime between dinner and bedtime. Charlie was so excited by this that as soon as she hung up the phone she went directly to her room and packed a medium sized suitcase, along with a large backpack, full of her favorite clothes, books, stuffed animals and anything else she imagined she might need for a one night visit at her grandparents. Charlie did this quickly, despite the fact that it was only Tuesday and the visit was still four nights away.
By the time Friday finally came Charlie was so excited she barley made it through the school day. All day long she found herself getting into trouble in class for talking out of turn or fidgeting loudly at her desk. Charlie, unsure of what to expect, having not seen her grandparents in several years, was unable to keep her mind from having a variety of fantasies about how the visit might go. Most of these fantasies had the visit going well. She imagined that she and her grandma would create an instant connection, laughing at each others jokes, baking cookies and cuddling up on the couch together while watching all of Charlie’s favorite movies. Charlie found herself imagining that, after a great visit, her grandparents would decide that she needed to live with her family and would drive back to the foster home on Saturday to pick up the rest of her belongings rather than to drop her off.
Another part of Charlie found herself remembering that she never really had much of a relationship with her grandparents and she worried that this visit would reflect this. Charlie hadn’t spent the night at her grandparents house since she was five or six years old when she had woken up in the middle of the night, scared by the strange house, crying for her grandma to come and take her home. Charlie felt her stomach drop with anxiety as she recalled how no one had come to her that night long ago and she had cried alone in the dark bedroom until her exhaustion finally allowed her to fall back asleep. Although Charlie was trying hard to imagine a wonderful night with her grandma and grandpa, she was also worried that this visit would be reminiscent of that night when she had found the house to have a strange and unpleasant smell and, it seemed, both her and her grandparents were relieved the next morning that it was time for her to go home.
After going back and forth in her mind between these two extreme possibilities Charlie found herself very anxious by the time school finally ended. As soon as the last bell rang she ran as fast as she thought she could get away with from her classroom to her locker, where she picked up her backpack and coat and walked quickly out the front doors of the school, passed her usual bus, and climbed into John Middleton’s waiting car. The first thing Charlie did once in the car was check the backseat to ensure that John had remembered to bring her suitcase. Upon seeing the suitcase perched safely within sight on the backseat Charlie settled into a state of almost constant nervous chatter for the long drive to her grandparents house, asking repeatedly if John knew the way and how much longer it would take to get there.
About an hour later John pulled the car up in front of the small suburban rambler than belonged to Charlie’s grandparents. Charlie anxiously unbuckled her seatbelt before the car had come to a complete stop, jumped out as soon as possible, and ran eagerly up the vaguely familiar walkway leaving John behind to bring in the suitcase she had been so worried about only a short time ago. At the front door Charlie had a sudden panic as she was greeted by a dark quiet home, the shades pulled tightly shut, and no indication that anyone was home. Charlie, who had imagined both her grandparents waiting excitedly by the door with their arms wide open when she arrived, was disappointed and unsure of what to do. Finally John joined her on the steps and, with one hand placed gently on her shoulder, rang the doorbell without hesitation, seemingly unfazed by the darkness of the house.
A minute or two after ringing the doorbell Charlie’s whole body registered the relief as they finally heard a faint sound of movement within the house. It took what seemed like another five minutes before the front door opened and Charlie’s grandma was standing in front of them. Charlie immediately recognized the tentative look on her grandma’s face and froze as she searched for an appropriate way to react to the situation. John Middleton broke the silence by offering a handshake as he introduced himself to Charlie’s grandma. Carol Foxx returned the handshake before turing towards Charlie and meeting her anxious gaze for the first time. Just having her grandma stand there and look into her eyes caused Charlie to immediately begin to tear up. She reacted to her sudden wave of emotions by rushing up and wrapping her arms around the woman who instinctually returned the awkward hug.
The visit went okay. The house still had the same stale smell that Charlie remembered from when she had been a little kid. The food they ate was plain and kind of gross to Charlie, who had been met with blank questioning stares when she suggested that she could make them white chicken chili sometime. Charlie found little in the house of interest to a twelve year old girl and spent most of the time, bored and alone, flipping through the channels of an outdated television looking for something that she could watch. She saw very little of her grandpa outside of meals, which were eaten slowly and in virtual silence. Her grandpa preferred instead to spend most of his time by himself in a basement room Charlie wasn’t even allowed to see. A highlight of the weekend for Charlie was when her grandma taught her how to play cribbage while the two of them sat quietly at the dimly lit kitchen table.
It was strange for Charlie to sleep in her mothers old bedroom, the very same bedroom that had been so scary to her in the middle of the night so many years ago. Charlie comforted herself at bedtime by looking around the room at the many pictures of her mom that were still displayed in the room. She was especially surprised to see a picture of herself as a three year old beside both of her parents. In the picture all three of them were smiling as they sat in front of a colorful christmas tree. Once she did fall asleep Charlie slept well and had to be woken up by her grandma the next morning for a light breakfast of orange juice and toast.
Despite the low key nature of the visit and seeming lack of connection, Charlie was thrilled by the opportunity to spend an overnight with a real member of her family. She didn’t even complain when her grandparents returned her to the foster home earlier than expected on Saturday. Charlie was glad for the opportunity to tell John and Nicole about all the fun she had and to see if they too knew how to play cribbage. She talked about it all night, making every minute of the visit sound like it had been a fabulous party. She described the food as amazing and suggested that she had felt privileged to watch television on her own, at being given the chance to finally be able to make her own decisions about what to watch. She even told her foster parents that being with her grandma was like being with her mom again and that she was excited to go live with them, that she would be moving in as soon as they got their house ready for her and worked everything out with her social worker. Charlie went to bed early that night, exhausted from her short visit and saddened, knowing that things had not gone as well with her grandparents as she had said.
After the visit Charlie was obsessed with the idea of moving in with her grandparents. Although she still got along well with and liked the Middleton’s something had definately changed. Their home was no longer where she wanted to be. She started calling her grandma as much as three or four times per week. At some point during almost every call she would ask if she could live with them. Charlie often broke down into tears as her grandma would either side step the question by changing the subject or would tell her that it probably wasn’t a good idea. Charlie was undeterred. She began to call her social worker Robert regularly as well, telling him that she could not be happy unless she moved in with her grandparents, always being careful to make sure he understood that it was nothing that John and Nicole had done wrong.
Charlie, who had excelled in school the entire time she had lived with the Middleton’s, began to struggle there as well. She turned her back on Vanessa and her other friends telling them she would be moving soon and that she would make new friends at her new school. She stopped turning in homework, assuring her teachers that she would work harder once she started at the new school. She had stopped participating in almost all activities with her foster parents, even skipping American Idol night, preferring instead to stay in her room reading or going through her belongings, sorting out what she would bring with her when she moved and what she would leave behind.
No amount of reasoning from anyone could shake Charlie’s insistence that she was going to move in soon with her grandparents. Finally, one day after school, Grandma Carol called and told Charlie that she and her grandfather were willing to try it. She told Charlie that if she promised to work hard for the rest semester at school she could move in with her and her grandfather over spring break and start the next semester at a new school near their house. Charlie was overjoyed. She was a perfect student and a perfect foster child from that moment forward. Over the final six weeks of her time at the Middleton’s Charlie was spending at least part of each weekend with her grandparents. She brought all of her belongings with her the very first night, moving all of it into her new bedroom, her mom’s old bedroom, and packing up and bringing whatever she needed with her when she went back to the foster home as if it were this home she was visiting.
Charlie moved out of the Middleton’s foster home and into her grandparents home on a crisp, late winter, Saturday morning. The ground was shining from a cover of fresh snow as John and Nicole drove their now former foster child along with her last few possessions to live with members of her family for the first time since being removed from her father’s custody and placed into foster care nearly four years earlier. Charlie had to shield her eyes from the sun and as the reflective glare of the snow as she said an appreciative but businesslike goodbye to the couple she had lived with for the past ten months. As soon as the the Middleton’s drove away Charlie promptly turned around and disappeared into her new home, excited to begin her new life living with her mother’s parents, Carol and Dave Foxx. She lasted less than three months.
Living with her grandparents was difficult for Charlie almost immediately. She had imagined that the awkwardness of that initial visit would be gone and that her grandparents would prove to be as excited to have her as she was to be there. Instead she quickly found that, now that she was living with them, her grandparents put even less energy into her than they did during the few recent visits she’d had. Charlie and her grandpa continued to have almost no contact other than his occasional command that she keep her stuff in her room and out of his way. The tradition of playing cribbage each evening with her grandmother after dinner died out after only three nights, her grandmother preferring instead to watch the primetime television dramas on the only television in the house Charlie was allowed to watch.
School was just as difficult. Because Charlie had made friends so easily at her last school, she had arrived at her new school confident she would make new friends just as easily. It took three days of eating alone at lunchtime before she admitted to herself that this new school was very different. The kids she met were standoffish, even rude to her. Her teachers were frustrated as it became apparent that Charlie, although clearly intelligent, had not been on the same learning path at her old school. She had a lot of work to do just to get caught up. Charlie quickly realized that she was not making friends and was spending most of her time at home in her bedroom by herself. She was bored and she was lonely.
Although Charlie loved her grandma and felt that her grandma loved her back, she was learning that they had little in common in terms of interests. Still, Charlie felt like they at least had a good relationship. It was a different story with her grandpa. Interactions with him were few, brief, and mostly negative. Charlie observed that it was mostly the same way between her grandpa and her grandma as well. She was confused by how difficult it was to be around him, although something about it had a familiarity that made Charlie uncomfortable. It took her about three weeks to figure out what it was. Her grandpa drank, and he drank a lot.
Charlie figured this secret out one Sunday when her grandparents left her alone in the home for a few hours while they went shopping. She took this opportunity to sneak downstairs into the only part of the house she had not been allowed into. In the semi-finished basement Charlie found a partitioned off room that had been made up into a sort of second living room with a recliner chair pointed at a small television. On the table next to the chair were three liquor bottles, two of them empty, and a ceramic coffee cup. Charlie took one look at this makeshift room and her grandpa bottles and ran back upstairs as quickly as she could, having seen enough for one day.
After this everything for Charlie changed again. Knowing now that her grandpa drank she could smell it on his breath and on his clothing whenever they did interact with each other. Charlie found herself scared of her grandpa and she handled this by subtly provoking him, trying to figure out if he did indeed present a danger. She began to argue with him about the kinds of food they ate or, even though she didn’t even have any friends yet, how late she would be able to stay out or if she could have someone spend the night. Charlie noticed that her grandma would mostly try to stay out of it when they would argue, stepping in only occasionally to try to find a solution that would keep the peace.
The situation between Charlie and her grandpa went quickly from bad to worse. They began to argue almost daily about pretty much anything and everything. With no outside friends, and little support from her grandma, Charlie started to feel like she was coming apart at the seams. She was spending a lot of time alone in her room surrounded by reminders of her mom and dad. When she asked if she could call her dad Charlie’s grandma had been dismissive, saying that he had let the family down enough already and that she didn’t know his phone number anyway. The only person Charlie had in her life outside of the home was her social worker and the few times she spoke to him she made a point to tell him everything was fine, afraid that he would move her into another foster home if she told the truth.
Charlie made a small cut on her thigh one night in the time between dinner and bedtime. Grandma Carol had made a very dry meatloaf for dinner that night which Charlie was not able to hide her dislike for. After about ten minutes of pushing the food around on the dinner plate her grandpa commented that if they were going to have to pay to feed her the least she could do is eat. Charlie tried to look away but found herself unable to adequately hide herself from his intense scowl. Charlie reluctantly ate, gagging, almost to the point of vomiting, as she choked down half a piece of meatloaf before finally giving up and leaving the table without permission. She walked straight to her bedroom and slammed the door, bracing herself for a big fight. Instead she was met with the silence of her grandparents remaining at the kitchen table to finish the meal without her.
As much as Charlie had dreaded the fight she expected as a result of her abandoning the table, she found the slight of her grandparents indifference to be much worse. She gave little thought to the progress she had made in the past months or the consequence of going back to her old method of handling her pain. Charlie simply, and without ceremony, broke the corner of one of her compact disk cases and scratched at herself until she drew blood. Immediately she felt better and, after cleaning her wound with an old t-shirt, went to bed without saying goodnight to either of her grandparents.
Charlie cut herself in the same way, alone in her room before bedtime every night for the next five nights. She would probably have kept right on doing it if her grandma hadn’t asked her during dinner on the sixth night if something was wrong. Charlie surprised even herself by responding honestly that she knew grandpa was drinking and that she had started cutting again. Two days later, with Charlie sitting next to her at the kitchen table, Grandma Carol called Robert to tell him that Grandpa Dave refused to stop drinking and it wasn’t going to work out for Charlie to live with them anymore.
The phone call ended with the agreement that Charlie would stay with her grandparents temporarily while Robert considered alternative placements for her. It took him exactly three days to call back to let them know she had been accepted into South Field Academy. It was another week after that when Robert finally arrived early in the morning to drive Charlie away from the family home that just a few months ago she had been so excited to move into. Charlie’s grandpa stayed out of sight in the basement while she and her grandma hugged a tearful goodbye before Robert and Charlie embarked on the two hour journey south to the residential treatment center that would be her home for the next two years.
Over time Tim and Sarah’s life with Charlie settled into what seemed to be a workable routine. Sarah’s drinking, although still daily, had tapered to a level of basic functionality. She drank just enough to keep her going during the day with several binge nights each week out with friends. Tim’s pot smoking was basically the same. He had learned to smoke just a little during the day saving his heavy use for the time between the end of his work shift and whenever he finally went to bed.
Tim had settled into a routine of working five nights a week. Now that Charlie was in school, and their field trips were limited to the weekends, Tim found he was spending less and less time with his daughter. Sarah had found a part job several afternoons each week which helped bring in a few extra dollars and gave Tim some time alone at home during the day. Both of these factors had an overall positive effect on the relationship between Tim and Sarah. Charlie was doing well in school and her parents had settled into a routine that mostly seemed to work. As the months and even years passed by Tim felt that he was as happy as he deserved to be and most of the time he was content with this.
Charlie was still the best friend Tim had. On weekends they would go on their adventures whenever possible. Now that Charlie was school aged she was developing interests of her own. When she decided that egg rolls were her favorite food they spent several weekends going around town looking for best egg rolls they could find. Charlie made Tim take her to movies she had seen commercials for or to pet stores to look at puppies and kittens, begging Tim relentlessly to let her bring one home. The convenient excuse of not being allowed to have dogs or cats in their apartment worked until she set her sights on a pet rat. Without building regulations to stand behind Tim and Sarah finally caved in, with Sarah’s one stipulation being that she never have to go anywhere near it. The next weekend Tim and Charlie went back to their favorite pet store and returned with a new family member in a card board box, a black and white Rat named Frisbee.
Frisbee proved to be a surprisingly unifying force in the family. Within weeks even Sarah had softened to the creature who enjoyed being held and was even occasionally allowed to roam free in the living room. The rat especially loved Charlie who took uncanny care of the pet for a seven year old, cleaning the cage almost daily and never missing a feeding. Charlie even tried to sleep with her pet a few times but had agreed to stop this after being late for her school bus several times due to the inevitable apartment wide search for Frisbee the next morning.
The most surprising thing to Tim about his life during this time was the fact that he and Sarah were still living together and parenting Charlie as a team. Although their relationship was far from perfect it seemed to suit them both. Over time the separation and hostility of Charlie’s infancy was replaced by something more akin to cooperation and mutual understanding. Sarah, Tim had come to realize, felt a strong need for freedom and social outlets. Tim on the other hand was finding himself becoming much more reserved as he grew older. Because of this Tim no longer became upset with Sarah’s binge nights out with her friends. He had accepted that this was as much part of her as parenting was. Besides, he reasoned with himself, who was he to judge? He had his own demons to face and his own vices to fight them with.
Occasionally Sarah would disappear for a night completely, always returning the next day in plenty of time for Tim to get to work. When this would happen Tim found himself making excuses for her to Charlie, not wanting his young daughter to worry about her mom or wonder if something was wrong. As had been the case in the past, Sarah would return from these unaccounted for overnights without apology or mention of where she had been. The difference now being that she no longer hid from Tim when she got home. She would simply say hello and the family would resume it’s routine. Often Sarah would even go out of her way to be kind to Tim in the wake of such an evening and Tim eventually came to view these times as a potential opportunity for a rare sexual encounter with the woman he realized that, despite everything, he did still love.
Sarah too, it seemed, loved Tim in her own way. She would find ways to surprise him such as cleaning the entire house on a night he was at work or using some of the money she earned, money that typically went towards her drinking, to buy him some new music or some better weed than he usually bought himself. One time Sarah had even bought tickets for the three of them to go to a baseball game together as a family, something, she admitted to him that night, that she wished she had more energy for. It had been an especially fun night as the Twins had won the game and Charlie, not exactly a baseball fan, beamed from ear to ear the whole time, seemingly happy just to be out with both of her parents together.
Tim knew that things between he and Sarah were unlikely to ever be the way they were before Charlie was born but he was still pleased to think that they were together at all, even if he suspected it was mostly for Charlie’s sake. He was especially happy when they occasionally would do things as a couple. Tim accepted that their social lives had become entirely separate from one and other but they did occasionally go on what he liked to think of as dates. Mostly these would take place in the afternoons while Charlie was at school. They would go out to lunch or to a matinee movie. Even something as mundane as grocery shopping together would sometimes make Tim feel like they had created a real family.
The times Tim really cherished where the nights when Sarah would stay home on his night off and the three of them would watch a movie and then, after Charlie went off to bed, he and Sarah shared each others vices drinking and smoking pot together until very late at night like they had years ago when they first met. Once they had even had Charlie spend the night at Sarah’s parents house so they could go to a concert together, splurging before hand at a fancy downtown restaurant they sometimes joked about trying but had never actually been to. Tim appreciated that whenever he and Sarah were able to step out of the routine their life had fallen into and have these moments together it still felt natural. Sarah amazed him by taking the time to look her best and by staying present with him the entire time they were together. He had long ago decided to enjoy these moments with Sarah rather question her on what they meant or why they were so infrequent. He had learned during their ten years together that she was not likely to change and that she came with both good and bad, just like, Tim supposed, he did.
When Tim worried about the life that he and Sarah had agreed upon, even if it was an unspoken agreement, he would quickly look towards the only evidence he needed to prove that it was working. Charlie, by all measures he could think of, was doing great. She enjoyed school and the teachers all reported that she was an excellent student. She made friends easily, often going over to their homes after school or on the weekends. Charlie rarely, if ever, got into trouble at home and if she did it was for something minor like making a mess and not cleaning it up or arguing over nothing. She laughed regularly and smiled even more. Tim took great comfort in the fact that, despite he and Sarah’s obvious shortcomings, Charlie was a kid who was growing up knowing she had two parents who loved her, which was more than he could have said about his own childhood.
His biggest regret, as far as Charlie was concerned, was that he knew she was growing up with secrets. Tim could relate to this, having grown up himself in a house full of alcohol, drug use, and occasional violence. He had promised himself that he would do better if he ever had a family and convinced himself that, despite Sarah’s drinking and his own pot smoking, the lack of violence in Charlie’s life could be seen as nothing short of a major improvement over the job his own parents had done. Tim had lost contact completely with his family soon after high school when he moved to Minneapolis largely to get away from them. He had gone back only once a few years afterwards for his only brother’s funeral and then left again immediately afterwards, this time without looking back. Tim remembered the excuses he made as a child to his friends when they asked why they were never allowed to go to his house after school or why he never talked about his family. He knew what this was like for a child and often felt sorry as he guessed that Charlie was going through some of the same things. His only solace came from her obvious happy demeanor, something Tim knew he had not had as a child.
This life went on for several years with very little variation. Tim fell into an acceptable pattern at work, even gaining a promotion to dinner shift supervisor. Likewise the family too fell into an acceptable pattern with their home life. As Charlie was getting older she was becoming more and more involved in activities through her school or the local park. Tim and Sarah both saw the value in this and worked together to make sure it would work out. A part of Tim had been initially surprised with how willing Sarah was to go out of her way to make sure Charlie was able to do these things. He gained a new of level respect for Sarah when she made a point of making sure Charlie made it to every soccer practice and game for an entire summer.
It brought great joy to Tim that Charlie was making friends that she seemed to really like and that seemed to really like her back. Tim also was pleased that she enjoyed good, although different, relationships with both of her parents. Tim and Charlie had their adventures where they could share in experience and much of their relationship centered around these outings. Whenever Tim was struggling to find some way to relate to his young daughter he would fall back into the comfort of talking about places they had been or placed they could go. With Sarah, Tim noticed, Charlie had a very different kind of relationship. Sarah was the one Charlie would run to if she was hurt or sick or if one of her friends made her feel bad in some way. Sarah was so patient with Charlie sometimes and Tim would watch in amazement as she seemed to know just what Charlie needed at times when he himself was unsure of how to meet anything other than her basic needs.
Although there were plenty of times that Tim questioned he and Sarah’s ability as parents and knew they were making plenty of mistakes, he continued to allow himself to feel better knowing that they were doing good enough. Charlie was happy and was progressing, making good grades and making friends. Somehow, Tim thought, despite everything, Charlie was doing well, the whole family was doing well. Tim was feeling better about the life they had carved out. He was feeling better about himself, having found a balance that seemed to work for him. His daughter was growing up and his relationship was steady. Gone was the depression and anxiety he had felt during the first few years after Charlie was born. At 33 Tim was finally starting to believe that things were going to work out for him. Charlie was nine years old.
* * *
Sarah was killed in a car accident at one o’clock in the morning on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night in mid March. She was riding shotgun with a friend Tim had never heard her mention before on a suburban highway in a remote part of the city Tim had never even considered going to. Police revealed to Tim that both women had been well over the legal alcohol limit when the car they were driving had swerved off the road and into a large stand of trees beside the road, killing each of them instantly. No other cars were involved and Tim was never given any information about what they had been doing or where they had been before the accident.
The police arrived at Tim and Sarah’s apartment around two in the morning to break the news. Tim took the news gracefully and quietly, unsure of how he was supposed to react. After the officers finally left, Tim sat alone in the darkened living room too stunned to cry or even really react. Eventually Tim realized that he needed to let Sarah’s family know that their youngest daughter was dead. He had never personally called Sarah’s parents for any reason, even waiting until Sarah was able to call them herself the day Charlie had been born. Finally Tim got up the nerve to make the call. Sarah’s father, a man who had always intimidated Tim with his directness and inflexibility, answered the phone on the second ring. Tim had tried to think of the right words but ended up simply blurting out what happened mater of factly, as if relaying the weather report to an out of town friend. Tim hung up the phone with the understanding that Sarah’s parents were on their way over to help with whatever needed to be done in the wake of Sarah’ death.
After this Tim decided to call Sarah’s friend Kimberly, the one friend of Sarah’s he felt like he knew and trusted. Part of him just wanted to be alone to process what had happened and to think about how he was going to tell Charlie. Another part of him did want to be around people and felt a responsibility to let others who knew Sarah know about the accident. Tim spent fifteen minutes frantically cleaning the apartment, throwing away Sarah’s liquor bottles and burning incense to hide any residual smell from his pot smoking. He was trying to rid the home of evidence of the way that they lived, worried he would be judged as somehow guilty in Sarah’s death. Once he’d cleaned the apartment as well as it could be cleaned on such short notice, Tim walked into Charlie’s room expecting the girl to have been woken up by the noise he was making. Instead he found her sleeping gently, angelic in her pink pajamas and rhythmic breathing. Seeing her there, unaware of the extent to which her life had just changed, brought out in Tim the emotions he had struggled to fully access the last few hours. He began to cry in a way he had never cried before, sad not for himself, but for this child sleeping before him who had just lost her mother and who now, Tim feared, did not have a chance in the suddenly cruel world she had to survive in.
The next few days were a whirlwind. Sarah’s parents arrived at 4:30 am looking as shocked as Tim felt. Sarah’s mother went straight into Charlie’s room to check on her, reporting back that she was still asleep and should be allowed to sleep as long as possible. Kimberly arrived an hour later with enough food to feed a small army, saying she was sorry to impose herself but that she needed to do something. Tim was surprised at how glad he was that these people had come, still unsure of how to react himself and dreading the task of telling Charlie the news. Everyone was stunned and crying. Finally, around 7:00 am, Tim heard that Charlie was awake and went into her room. He knew that Charlie understood the finality of death, thinking back to the day not long before when her pet rat Frisbee had developed a tumor and died much earlier than expected. What Tim was not sure about was the extent to which his nine year old daughter, the one person he loved more than anything in the world, more than he had ever thought possible, would really understand what this would mean to her. How could a nine year old possibly recognize what it would really mean to go the rest of the way without her mom.
Tim suspected that Charlie somehow already know what had happened by the time he went into her room to tell her the news about Sarah. Still, playing her role as the grieving child perfectly, Charlie burst into tears allowing everyone in the apartment the opportunity to feel slightly better themselves simply through the process of consoling her. Sarah’s parents paid for most of their daughter’s funeral and burial, understanding that Tim had very little money and that he was struggling to find time to work given that Sarah was no longer there to care for Charlie. Tim cleaned out his savings to buy a black suit for himself and a black dress complete with tights and shiny black shoes for Charlie.
The funeral took place four days later outside on a rainy but warm for the season morning at the church Sarah had gone to as a child. Sarah’s older sister did not make it, nor did anyone from Tim’s family. Sarah’s mom used pride to fight her tears while her father had allowed himself to become visibly drunk, no one willing to challenge the man who was burying his youngest daughter many years to soon. Tim did not recognize many of the attendees, mostly acquaintances of Sarah’s parents or friends that Kimberly had informed about the service. Charlie was never more beautiful, as polite as she was radiant, standing guard over her mother’s closed casket, accepting the condolences of each well wisher with the grace and courage of a much older person. Looking at Charlie Tim couldn’t help but cry for most of the day, his tears again not as much for Sarah as for his daughter who was suddenly without a mother and who was exactly as alone in the world as he was.
The supports that had come in the first days after Sarah’s death disappeared as quickly as they had surfaced. Three days after the funeral Tim’s boss at the restaurant called to ask how soon he would be ready to work again. When Tim told him that he couldn’t work nights anymore because someone had to stay with Charlie he had simply been told sorry, that the day shift was filled, and they would call him if any hours opened up. After this it was only silence. Just him and Charlie and a heavy grief that neither of them really understood. He was fortunate that his landlord allowed a little leeway in the rent, having appreciated the steady payments that had been a priority of Tim’s for nearly ten years. Charlie went back to school while Tim worked what few hours he could. Neither of them really knew what to say to the other about the turn their lives had suddenly taken. The good enough life they had carved out had been smashed to bits and now all they had was survival, neither of them strong enough to fully support the other. Tim was left with his old anxiety, depression and pot smoking while Charlie, he feared, was truly alone. Tim knew that they were on a path that could not be maintained but he felt powerless to change. Eventually something had to give and that something came in the form of outside intervention from county social services. Tim felt truly defeated as he stepped aside and let the life he had always expected for himself take over.
Robert walked up the familiar street towards Minnie’s apartment laughing at himself as he noticed the same three black teens who, apparently, were a permanent fixture on the entryway steps. He wondered if they recognized him back and decided that, since he now knew they did not present a threat to him, he would greet them confidently. He still felt bad for having ignored them last time only to have them be the ones forced to maintain basic politeness by greeting him as he walked by.
“What’s going on fellas” Robert said, looking directly at the three youth as he passed them.
His effort was met only with blank distant stares as all three youth reacted as if the only thing passing by them was a barley discernible breeze. Robert shrugged it off and stepped into the darkness of the building, feeling the stickiness of the rug on his shoes as he did. His knock on the door of Minnie’s apartment was similarly met with silence. Robert gave it a few minutes of intermittent knocking before accepting, finally, that this meeting was one of those Minnie had forgotten. This happened just often enough to keep it from being a surprise but not often enough to be a real problem. Robert was actually slightly relieved Minnie was not there because this was his last scheduled appointment of the day and her absence allowed him the rare opportunity to go home a little early, something had definitely had earned with the long hours over the last few weeks.
Walking out less than ten minutes after having entered the building Robert was oddly embarrassed in front the three youth who had now shifted to a sitting position and were taking up even more of the narrow staircase. Once again they met Robert with an almost practiced indifference, breaking down into low toned smirks only when Robert passed off the building property and onto the city street. Robert had already decided not to call Minnie to reschedule until the following morning and he found himself trying to think of reasons to convince her that their next meeting should be at his office rather than her apartment. He thought about this knowing in advance that the meeting would inevitably be at Minnie’s apartment as always which would force him to once again walk past these three guardians of the building with their hard stares and insolvable social riddles.
Robert’s phone rang almost immediately as he pulled from the curb into the street for the short drive home. He briefly considered not answering but finally decided that whatever it was he would have to deal with it eventually.
“This is Robert.” he said into the device he used so often it had become like an extension of his very being.
“Robert?” the voice said tentatively on the other end. “This is Tim, Tim Brunell. Charlie’s dad.”
“Oh hey Tim,” Robert responded, his mind shifting from one case to another. “What can I do for you?”
“I guess I’m not sure” Tim replied, “I just… how’s Charlie?”
Tim had begun calling Robert like this on occasion to check on Charlie. Robert suspected that part of what he Tim wanted was for Robert to bridge the gap that had grown between he and his daughter over the past several years. Tim had asked several times if there were any more meetings scheduled coming up that he could join Robert for or if Robert had spoken to Charlie recently. Tim had also asked if Robert had a sense of what the girl was thinking in the wake of seeing her dad for the first time in years.
“No news that I’m aware of Tim, I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” Robert answered, “I haven’t spoken to her since we were down there. Have you?”
Robert endured the silence coming through on the phone until he began to worry the call had been dropped. “Tim?” He finally said.
“I’m here,” Tim admitted “Sorry. I haven’t tried to call her yet I guess. I just don’t know what to say, what she will say, you know. I guess I’m just scared.”
“Look,” Robert said, pulling the car into a parking space so he could better focus on the conversation which had suddenly become much more serious than he had expected it to be. “I get that Tim, I do. It’s been a long time, for both of you. I’m sure Charlie’s scared too.” Robert paused to let that sink in before continuing. “The visit went well, Tim. We both agree about that. Now it’s up to you and Charlie to move forward. Call Maureen if you want to, set something up. Go down there on your own. It’s on you now Tim. I can help support you, and Charlie has people supporting her too, but if you want back into her life in a meaningful and real way you have to be the one to step up and re-establish the relationship.”
Once again Robert’s words were met by silence and he began to worry that he had spoken to directly to this man he barley knew. When Tim did finally speak the tone in his voice had shifted. He spoke as if suddenly energized.
“You’re right Robert, thanks.” Tim said back. “I’ll call, I will. Soon. And I will go down there and see her. She deserves to have at least one parent.”
After the call ended Robert sat quietly in his car for five or six minutes just thinking before resuming the drive home. He was beginning to have some real hope for this family. He knew it wouldn’t be easy for either one of them but Robert had no doubt about Tim’s sincerity. He loved his daughter and, Robert truly believed, always had. Robert really felt that both of these people, Tim and Charlie, had been completely derailed by the car accident four years earlier which had killed the girl’s mother outright and left them both suddenly alone in very different ways.
Robert found himself in a reflective mood when he did finally get home. He was thankful again about Minnie’s unannounced cancellation which had cleared the way for his being home early, but he was unsure of how to spend the unexpected free time. Robert did not want to be alone and reflectively picked up the phone to call Abby before realizing that talking to someone who was 500 miles away, even if it was Abby, was not going to help solve the tinge of loneliness he was now feeling himself. He clicked off before allowing the first ring and called a friend who lived only a few miles away instead. Luckily for Robert this friend was also home from work early and they decided to meet up at a restaurant downtown for some dinner and a few beers. Without even bothering to change his clothes Robert was out the door again, choosing to take the bus rather than drive knowing that his mood would likely lend to his wanting an extra beer or two and having recently been reminded by his conversation with Tim Brunell about the power and danger of driving drunk.
Tim woke up much earlier than usual and was greeted by the sun shining into his bedroom window at an angle he rarely got to see. Getting ready he had an extra bounce in his step, hopeful that he would be able to accomplish some of the goals he had in mind quickly and without much trouble. Tim had already made one noticeable change, he had quit smoking weed, mostly anyway. Tim had not been able to bring himself to throw away his small pipe and supply, somehow finding comfort in just knowing it was available if he needed it. He had been surprised actually to find how well he was doing without the crutch he had depended on for so many years and had turned towards it only two or three times as he struggled to find sleep or slow the cascade of negative thoughts that had plagued him off and on his entire life.
Tim, who’s usual routine to start the day was to sleep until late morning and then slowly ease into the day by putzing around the house or watching television, was unusually efficient on this morning. He had set an alarm and got up as soon as it went off, taking a quick shower, dressing in some of his nicer clothing and getting out the door within twenty minutes. Immediately Tim caught the bus and headed straight to the video store he worked at, hoping to catch up with his manager Sam before any of the other employees arrived.
He felt lucky when he got to the store just as Sam was unlocking the back employee entrance. Sam, who was much younger than Tim, was hired about eighteen months earlier and had quickly risen to the position of manager because of his almost psychotic obsession with movies along with an unwavering seriousness that made him difficult to take advantage of. Although Tim and Sam never really had much in common, or even seemed to get along beyond a working relationship, Tim respected Sam as a manager and trusted that he would at least treat him fairly.
“Hey Sam,” Tim began “do you have a few minutes.
It seemed to take Sam a few seconds to process the request. Probably, Tim reasoned, because Tim rarely went out of his way to initiate a conversation with him.
“Sure” Sam replied, finally processing the simple request, “Just let me finish opening up here and I’ll meet you in the office.”
Tim nodded and walked into the back room office and took a seat in the chair opposite Sam’s desk. The office, which was not much bigger than the generic grey desk and two chairs on either side of it, was crowded with promotional movie posters and unopened boxes of the movie theater snacks that sold at the register. Although Tim was slightly nervous waiting for his young manager to enter the office he also felt surprisingly confident in his resolve. Suddenly there was a purpose and focus that he had not had in his life for a long time. Sam came in and sat down at his chair behind the desk and looked at Tim, apparently not wanting to waste any time. Tim decided to be direct.
“Sam, I’m here to ask for more hours,” Tim said without hesitation.
Sam looked at Tim and then down at some papers on the desk and then back at Tim before responding in a measured tone.
“What kind of hours are you thinking of Tim?” Sam asked.
“I’m looking for as close to full time as possible” Tim said, sticking to his strategy of speaking directly.
“Remind me how many hours have you been working?” Sam said, looking down at what Tim could now see was the master schedule.
“I have been averaging around 18 to 20 hours per week lately and I am hoping I can get that closer to 30 or 35 hours.” Tim said, doing some quick calculations in in his head.
Sam studied the schedule for a full two minutes before looking back up to respond.
“What hours are you available?” he asked as he tapped a pencil on the schedule in front of him.
“Anytime. All the time,” Tim responded hopefully, “whenever you can use me.”
“Well,” Sam said with a slight smile on his face “Chue actually just quit on us yesterday. I was thinking I would have to hire someone but if you are serious, and think you can handle it, I can use you pretty close to full time.”
“That would be great Sam,” Tim said, trying to contain his excitement, “thanks.”
Tim wrapped up his conversation with Sam by going over available hours for the next few weeks. Tim agreed to a schedule that had him working over forty hours the next two weeks and just under thirty-five hours the two weeks after that. Tim was pleased with how well this conversation with Sam had gone and walked out of the store smiling proudly to himself. He was thinking the extra work would do him good. It would make him feel like more of a father for Charlie and help him keep his mind off smoking weed.
It was a beautiful day and Tim decided to walk the three miles home rather than take the bus. During the walk, which seemed to go very quickly, he was frantically calculating how much more money the extra hours Sam promised him would add up to. Tim had been living a very meager lifestyle these past few years with just barely enough money left over for food each month after paying his rent and utility bills. Several times he had even used a local food shelf when his hours had been cut or an unexpected expense came up. Tim had gone to talk to Sam today with the goal in mind of earning enough extra money to buy himself a car, a luxury that had long seemed beyond his reach.
Tim was thinking of what kind of car he could consider buying and calculating that if he worked near full time and saved every little bit he could it just might be possible to buy a crappy car that worked well enough to go down and visit Charlie on his own. His already good mood brightened even more when it occurred to him that he did have a few things he could try to sell. His music collection, both CD’s and records was not worth much he knew, but it was worth something and he figured every little bit was going to help. He could even sell the guitar he had not played since before Charlie had been born, he thought, wondering why he had never considered this before. Tim stopped in his tracks when it occurred to him that somehow he had ended up with his grandmothers wedding ring. He felt shivers run up and down his whole body as he weighed this option. In his mind this had never been something to consider selling, he had always thought that someday he would give it to Charlie. Now, standing in the middle of the sidewalk under the crisp October sun, Tim realized that there was little point in saving something for Charlie only to end up losing her anyway. He decided then and there that he would sell the ring, save his money, and buy a car so he could get his daughter back.
When Tim finally got home he picked the mail up off the floor behind his front door and, seeing nothing of note as he sifted through it, went to discard it in the kitchen garbage while he searched for something to eat. As he dumped the pile of ads and junk mail into the can something that he had just looked at caught his attention in a different light. It was an envelope offering him a credit card. He received this kind of mail frequently, seeing it more as an advertisement that went to everyone than as a serious offer. Why, he had always figured, would anyone give him a credit card? Even if he could get a credit card Tim had always seen it as something that could only cause more problems than it would solve.
Still, he thought suddenly, things were looking up for him and maybe he should get a credit card just in case he had an emergency while driving out of the city to see his daughter. Seeing that the offer was from the same bank his checking account was from made him think that maybe he had a chance. He knew that the only reason he even had a bank account was that the video store required the use of direct deposit, but why should that stop him from applying? Tim sat down at the kitchen table and ripped open the envelop, not bothering to read the specifics as he filled out the application, still fairly certain that ultimately he would be turned down. He paused when he got to the “average income” section on the application before he decided to write in a number based on the hours he expected to be working from now on. He sealed the application in the provided return envelope and set it aside before returning to the task of making lunch.
All Tim had been able to find for lunch was two grilled cheese sandwiches made from freezer burnt bread and generic american cheese. He prepared these slowly, working to maximize their potential, and savored each one as he ate, reflecting on the success of his morning. Tim had a renewed energy for his job at the video store and was confident that working the extra hours would be good for him in more ways than just money. He imagined the kind of car he might be able to realistically afford and felt himself getting excited at all the possibilities a car could bring him and Charlie. Tim decided that after lunch he would buy a newspaper to look at the car ads, even if it was still just a dream at this point. Tim smiled again as he decided that first he would search his bedroom and find his grandmothers wedding ring.
Charlie looked around the unit and sighed with boredom. It had been an interesting day for her and she was having a difficult time bringing her mood back down to an acceptable level. The day started out normal enough with a routine breakfast and walk to school. Charlie had decided to wear her favorite outfit, the one she thought she looked cute in, which had given her an extra air of attitude. Her excitement about this increased when realized that the girls and boys classes would be mixed for part of the day and she might have a chance to be around Clint.
She turned out to be right about this and was able to find a seat right next to him while the teachers prepared for a large group presentation about bullying. About twenty minutes into the presentation, one that she had heard at least one hundred times before, Clint leaned over and asked her if she wanted to go out with him. Charlie whispered yes as quickly as she could and immediately was giddy and struggling to sit still. She made it about another ten minutes before she started looking around for one of her friends to tell. Several teachers were asking Charlie to stop talking but this quieted her for only a few minutes before she would start back up talking again. Charlie was also trying to talk to Clint who was content sitting back with a satisfied look on his face. He was clearly enjoying the show Charlie was putting on, proud of the role he had in creating it.
Finally Charlie was asked to leave the room and was taken out into the hall by one of the teacher’s aides. The rest of the day pretty much went the same way as the bullying presentation, with her getting in and out of trouble frequently for disrupting class and talking out of turn. At lunchtime Charlie ignored requests from her teachers and aides to sit down and walked over to Clint’s table to talk to him. Clint responded by doing his best to ignore Charlie until finally she was successfully ushered back to her assigned seat by one of the teachers from the boys classroom. Still, Charlie had gotten what she wanted and for the remainder of lunch she beamed every time Clint stole a quick glance in her direction.
Initially Charlie settled down some after school. She was a little embarrassed to have done so poorly on her daily point sheet and, at Donna’s advice, attempted to move forward and enjoy the evening without getting into any more trouble. Soon though Charlie found herself again giddy and restless as she imagined her and Clint running away from South Field to see a movie or go up to the cities so they could spend a whole day together walking around the Mall of America holding hands. Charlie made the mistake of talking about these dreams which immediately earned her a gentle scolding from the closest staff and a new round of teasing from Ashley and Jen.
“At least I can get a boyfriend,” Charlie shouted defiantly once the teasing began.
“Yeah, a new boyfriend every week” Ashely responded, prompting staff intervention to put an end to the most familiar argument on the unit.
Eventually Charlie was able to back off from the girls who had been occasional friends and frequent enemies to her since her first days at South Field nearly two years earlier. She tried to spend some time alone in her room and even asked the new girl Sierra, who Charlie thought was weird, if she would play a game of mancala or checkers. Sierra had declined, preferring to keep to her usual evening routine of painting her fingernails over and over. Finally sitting in her room alone simply was not stimulating enough to match Charlie’s mood. This restless energy combined with a genuine desire on Charlie’s part to stay out of trouble for the rest of the night led to her walking around the unit from place to place trying to find something that could occupy her, even if just for a half an hour.
On about her third pass by the staff desk within less than 20 minutes, Joey, a staff who had initially given Charlie the creeps, but who she was beginning to at least feel comfortable around, suggested that she call her grandma to see if it would help her to talk to someone. Charlie, who had maintained consistent but irregular contact with her grandma since moving here, had not spoken to her grandma in nearly two months and instantly saw this as a good idea.
“Hello” Charlie’s grandma said, answering on the second ring.
Charlie knew that this probably meant that her grandparents had finished supper already and that her grandma was in the kitchen sitting near the phone which allowed her to answer so quickly.
“Hi Grandma, it’s me, Charlie” she said tentatively, always a little unsure how her grandma felt about having her call.
“Oh Charlie, it’s great to hear your voice” her Grandma said, immediately helping Charlie relax. “Let me turn the dishwater off and sit down so I can hear you better.”
Charlie started the conversation with her grandma very generically, telling her that school was going well and about a day trip her unit had taken to a nearby apple orchard. Charlie listened eagerly as her grandma told her about the weather in the twin cities and about the neighbors new dog that was cute but barked all the time. The phone call with her grandma seemed to be working wonders as Charlie could feel her whole body finally slowing down from the excitement of the day. She had even been able to mostly ignore comments from the other girls around her, managing to respond only with a quick glare when Jen had suggested that Charlie tell her grandma about her new boyfriend Clint, something Charlie had already decided she was not going to do.
Things took a change in tone when, just before ending the call, Charlie mentioned to her grandma that she had seen her dad recently. Charlie had mentioned this mostly as an afterthought, not considering that her grandma would care one way or the other. Instead she was met by a long silence coming from the other end of the line.
“When did you see him?” her grandma finally asked with a detectable hint of concern in her voice.
“A few weeks ago,” Charlie answered. “He came down with Robert for one of my meetings.”
“How did that go, then?” her grandma asked, again sounding skeptical.
Charlie suddenly became worried that her grandma was mad at her for seeing her dad. This feeling both scared Charlie and made her feel defiant at the idea that her grandma didn’t like him.
“It went great” Charlie said, as if trying to sell the visit to her grandma. “He even stayed and ate lunch with me after the meeting ended.”
“So Tim is back in your life now, after all this time?” her grandma said after a lengthy pause and with what Charlie interpreted as a hint of anger in her voice.
“He’s always been part of my life, grandma” Charlie replied, feeling a pit develop deep inside of her stomach. “He’s called me too, a few times since he was here” she continued, still trying to convince her grandma that this was a good thing.
“I don’t know Charlie” her grandma said, “It’s just that it’s been so long and you remember what happened. It just worries me.”
“Grandma!” Charlie said, desperation now audible in her voice, “he’s my dad.”
“I know honey, I know. And, I’m sorry” her grandma said, speaking flatly now. “It’s just that I… I don’t know.”
“It will be okay grandma, you’ll see” Charlie said, trying now to make her grandma feel better. “He’s changed, I know he has.”
“Ok Charlie, I hope so.” Her grandma said finally. “I really do.”
The phone call ended quickly after this with both of them searching for a positive note to finish the conversation on after having stumbled while talking about Charlie’s dad. Charlie’s mood after the call was very different than it had been before. The endless energy left over from her exciting day suddenly replaced by the quick setting sadness that that alway seemed to be close by, ready to descend on her at any moment. Charlie, who was well practiced at handling sadness alone in her room simply responded “fine” when asked by Joey how the conversation with her grandma had gone. Joey only nodded, apparently satisfied that his idea had been a good one, while Charlie sunk into her bedroom, her mood change allowing her to now spend the rest of the night laying on her bed alternating between reading Harry Potter and staring at the cracked celling above her as she allowed the too familiar negative thoughts to wash over her.
Tim looked at his checkbook ledger with pride and satisfaction. His effort over the past three weeks had paid off and he now had almost $2000 to spend on a car. As expected he’d only been able to sell his music collection for $75 after choosing a few favorites to keep rather than sell everything. He had been pleasantly surprised to be able to sell the old used guitar for $425 and a little disappointed in the $800 he had gotten for the diamond from his grandmothers wedding ring. Overall the amount for everything combined was more than he had expected and Tim felt better about selling the family ring after not to accepting an additional $150 for the actual ring and setting which he decided to keep in hopes of someday replacing the diamond before giving the heirloom to Charlie.
After a quick shower Tim rushed out of the house to try and catch the 11:18 bus for what he was imagining as the last time. He was heading to a car dealership across town that required two bus transfers to get to so he could look at a car he had picked from the classified ads. It was a Chevy Cobalt with 120,000 miles on it for $1800. He didn’t know what color it was but was hoping for anything besides red or white, although he knew that the color wouldn’t effect his decision either way. Tim was trying to be realistic about the kind of car he might hope to find in his price range, and although a Cobalt was far from an exciting car he was hoping that this would work out. He was excited about the prospect of owning a car for the first time in almost 12 years. Excited, especially, about the possibility of being able to drive down and visit his daughter anytime he wanted.
Tim arrived at the dealership about an hour later and walked around tentatively for well over twenty minutes before finally getting up enough nerve to speak to someone in the sales department. After making it clear that he was indeed interested in what it turns out was the cheapest car on the entire lot, Tim was taken out back to look at the Cobalt. It was red. The car had a small but noticeable dent in the front passenger side panel and a little rust by the tailpipe. The interior had the look and smell of a car that had been roughly used and then well cleaned. There were multiple cigarette burns and it still smelled faintly of stale smoke and cleanser. The car also started right up when Tim and the salesman took it for a test drive and had a smooth ride that let Tim knew within ten minutes that he wanted to buy it.
Although disappointed he had to leave on the bus, Tim left happy because he had signed a deal to buy the car. Initially he had been unsure of himself, not feeling like he quite had what it takes to negotiate with a professional, but he’d gone for it anyway and ended up with what he thought to be a pretty good deal. The red Chevy Cobalt was all his, along with three months of basic insurance and taxes and fees for $1950. The dealership would hold the car for Tim as long as he showed up the following day with either cash or a cashier’s check in that amount. Because Tim knew that he had basically that exact amount of money in his bank account, and because the car seemed to be as solid as he could expect to find in his budget, he had agreed.
Tim caught the bus, asking for the transfer he would need to make it to work at the video store that evening. He was hoping to have time to call South Field and set up a time to drive his new car down to see Charlie as soon as possible. He arrived at the bus stop in front of the store fifteen minutes early and stayed in the bus shelter so he could avoid the now falling rain as he made his call. Tim dialed the South Field front desk on his cell phone and asked for Maureen.
“Hi Maureen it’s Tim Brunell, Charlie Foxx’s dad” he said nervously, speaking to his daughters unit supervisor on the phone for the first time since meeting her at a meeting a few weeks earlier. “Robert Nystrom said I could call you if I wanted to set up a visit with Charlie.”
“Oh yes, Tim. I’m glad you called.” she responded, putting him slightly at ease. “Charlie has been asking me if you have called.”
“I guess I told her I would” Tim admitted, now feeling slightly guilty that he hadn’t called before this.
“What can I do for you Tim?” Maureen asked without a trace of judgement or expectation in her voice.
“I was hoping I could come down and spend some time with Charlie.” Tim said tentatively.
“That would be wonderful Tim. I think Charlie would really like that” Maureen replied. “When did you have in mind?”
“Anytime I can really.” Tim said as he checked his watch and saw that his shift was about to start. “I actually have tomorrow off. But if that’s too soon…”
“No, I think that could actually work out” Maureen said, cutting him off. “If you came down after school, at about 3:00 you could spend a few hours with her on the grounds before dinner. I think that would be best for your first real visit together.”
“I could do that” Tim said, surprised at how easy this was going. “I’ll be there at 3:00.”
“Great, just ask for me at the front desk and we’ll go from there. I’ll let Charlie know and we’ll both see you tomorrow” Maureen said.
“Thank you.” Tim said hanging up the phone before turning to walk as quickly as he could into the video store.
Tim’s shift at the video store went by quickly and without incident. He was in a great mood all night which made him much more talkative with the customers than his usual reserved style. Although it was well after the store’s 11:00 PM closing time when he was finally finished with the register counts, Tim decided to walk the distance home, hoping to burn off some of his residual energy. The rain from earlier in the day had stopped, leaving in its place the cool damp air of the midwestern harvest season. As he walked alone though the empty side streets Tim took advantage of the quiet to plan the next day. He figured he would need to get to the bank pretty early in the morning in order to get a cashiers check which he would bring by bus to the car dealership. He hoped to finish the necessary paperwork in time to complete the long drive to South Field by 3:00 PM.
It was well after midnight by the time Tim finally made it home. Knowing that he needed to be up early the next morning he set his alarm for 7:30 AM and went immediately to bed. Although his body was exhausted from the busy day, Tim soon found his mind to be overly active as he imagined what it would be like drive his own car and how nice it would be to visit his daughter. It did not take long for Tim’s mind to make the switch to negative thoughts. He imagined something going wrong as he went to buy the car, coming up with long outrageous scenarios at the bank or dealership which would lead to his plan being denied. He kept reminding himself that the he had put the money into the bank himself and that the agreement at the dealership was already signed. Still, these facts did not seem to matter as his mind continued to come up with every negative outcome that could possibly occur the next day.
The clock read 1:32 AM when Tim’s thoughts started wondering towards the various ways his visit with Charlie could go wrong. He sat up in his bed and sighed heavily as he calculated the number of hours left until his alarm went off. Tim knew from years of experience that once his mind started down this path sleep would be hard to find. If he could fall asleep by 2:30, he reasoned, he would be tired but functional the next day. Once he decided what to do he got out of bed quickly and went straight to the small backpack in his bedroom closet where he kept what little pot he still had. Tim smoked just as much as he thought he would need to sleep. After smoking he put the bag and small pipe back in the backpack and crawled back into his bed, feeling the effects first in his head and then in his entire body. Tim was asleep within 20 minutes.
The next morning’s plans went off without a hitch. Tim was showered and at the bank by 8:30 and at the dealership with a cashier’s check for $1950 by 10:00. He had also taken out $40 cash so he could put some gas in the tank and have some money on hand just in case. It took longer at the dealership than Tim expected because they made him wait for the check to clear. Although nervous, Tim was able to relax some knowing he had gotten up early and given himself plenty of time. It was at exactly 11:45 that Tim pulled the red Chevy Cobalt out of the dealership lot. The car, which had been cleaned up some since the previous day, held just under a quarter tank of gas and glistened resolutely in the bright morning sun as Tim steered into traffic.
The drive down to South Field was nothing short of exhilarating for Tim. It was a beautiful day and the car, which had a surprisingly good stereo system, seemed to be running great. Tim could not remember the last time he had felt so much freedom. As he drew closer to South Field Tim, realizing he had some time to spare, and not wanting to be too early, turned off the main road and onto a small county road. Once on this road he turned the radio up loud and rolled all four windows down allowing the wind and music to swirl freely throughout the cars interior. Tim enjoyed each curve as the road took him past what seemed to be an endless parade of black and white cows and corn fields. For Tim, who rarely made it out of the city, these symbols of America’s western frontier further represented freedom and complimented perfectly the classic rock and roll station he had been lucky enough to find on the radio.
By the time Tim arrived at South Field he was feeling better than he had felt in a very long time. He was here to reclaim his family and the drive down had energized him in a way he could not have predicted. Walking up to the main entry doors of the large one storied institutional building Tim decided that Charlie had been away from her family for far too long and that today he was going to tell her exactly that. He was going to tell her that it was time for her to move home, with him. He felt a brief tinge of self doubt as he thought about his having smoked pot the evening before and how this had been the problem that had led to his losing Charlie in the first place. Tim quickly brushed these doubts aside, reminding himself that last night had been the first time in over three weeks that he had smoked at all and that he was a vastly different person now than he had been in the aftermath of Sarah’s accident.
Tim took a seat in the lobby as the receptionist called down to Maureen’s office. His optimistic mood was starting to fade slightly just as Maureen walked up and greeted him kindly. Tim was instantly struck by how attractive she was and couldn’t help but wonder how he had managed not to notice this obvious fact when he had met her several weeks earlier. Maureen invited Tim to follow her to her office, offering him a seat on a short leather couch as they entered the room. Tim was impressed by the office, impressed by the balance between comfort and professionalism. Behind Maureen’s desk was a large window overlooking the same corn field he had seen from the conference room during the meeting he’s been at. Across the room were several bookshelves filled with all kinds of books as well as a variety of board games and plastic bins filled with art supplies and other assorted items. Behind the couch Tim sat in were several diplomas and certificates including one letting Tim know that Maureen had earned her doctorate of psychology from the University of Nebraska.
“Tim,” Maureen started, leaning in slightly towards him as she spoke, “I’m so pleased you were able to make it down here today. I know it means a lot to Charlie as well.”
Tim recoiled a little, feeling like it was his turn to speak and suddenly finding he was unsure of what exactly he was supposed to say.
“I understand that this is both exciting and, probably, a little scary for you as well” Maureen continued as if reading Tim’s mind. “I just wanted to pull you in here quick to check in before your visit with Charlie.”
“Ok” Tim said, unsure of what was going to come next.
“Let me ask you this then.” Maureen continued without missing a beat, “I know that the meeting a few weeks ago was the first time you and Charlie have seen each other in quite a long time and that since then you and her have been talking on the phone about once a week. So, I guess the question is, how are you doing with all of this?”
Tim realized that he had been holding his breath as Maureen spoke and tried to let it out slowly so as to not give himself away.
“I’m doing good with it.” he said. “Really. It’s been nice to be part of Charlie’s life again.”
Tim sat back after speaking and looked out the window just as a red tailed hawk swooped down from above his line of vision and disappeared into the corn field below. Maureen was silent, letting Tim’s comments sit there between them for a long moment before she spoke again.
“That’s good Tim,” Maureen said finally. “I’m glad to hear that. And do you have people in your life you can talk to? That can support you as you sort your way through the process of getting to know your daughter again?”
This question caught Tim off guard and he could feel tightness building in his stomach as he began to worry that what Maureen was doing was testing him to see if he could be trusted to once again be Charlie’s dad. Tim was suddenly unsure if he could fully trust Maureen. Unsure of what to think about this woman who had such a dignified beauty about her and who had treated him so well up to this point. Nothing in Maureen’s demeanor had changed to indicate that she had suddenly turned on him so Tim decided to just go ahead and answer her question the best he could.
“The truth is” he began, surprising himself with how honest he was about to be, “I don’t really have very many friends left. When Sarah died I got kind of lost. I suppose you know all about that from reading Charlie’s case file. After Charlie was taken from me, I don’t really know how to explain it, I just kind of stopped being. Eventually I found a way to get by, but that was all it really was I guess. Getting by. I worked just as much as I needed to work to survive. I don’t really have any family and friends just weren’t really a part of it for me. Sometimes, I guess I would go out with someone after work or even connect with someone who had been a friend before. But I don’t know. I don’t really have friends. Sarah and Charlie were my friends.”
Tim stopped speaking and looked up at Maureen to see if she was listening, half expecting her to have checked out or to have a look of disgust on her face in response to his admission about how pathetic he had become. Outside the window he saw the hawk was back again, higher up but further away now so he could see it circling as it searched for an unsuspecting field mouse. Maureen was nodding gently at him, the look on her face still projecting kindness and understanding. It occurred to Tim that he had never really thought about Sarah’s death in quite this way before. Instead he had always focused on the obvious ways the accident had affected Sarah and Charlie. It felt good to talk about it.
“Things have changed for me recently in ways I could hardly even let myself imagine just a few months ago. Seeing Charlie again has, of course, been the biggest part of that. But there are other things different about me too. I am working full time, or almost full time, for the first time in three years. I just walked in and asked my boss for the hours and he said yes. It’s been going good too. I know it’s a pretty shitty job, but I am taking it more serious or something. It’s hard to explain. I even bought a car just so I could drive down here. And you know what?” Tim looked up at Maureen to make sure she was still listening. “Right before I got here, driving with the radio up and the windows down, was the first real fun I have had in a very long time.”
“That’s great Tim,” Maureen responded after a long pause. “I’m glad things are getting better for you and I think this is good news for Charlie too.” She paused again, “I’m curious about how you see Robert, Charlie’s social worker from the county. Do you see him as someone who can support you?”
Again Tim was surprised by her question.
“I guess I do” he said. “I hadn’t really thought of it like that you know? Robert has been fair to me, and I trust him if that is what you mean? He’s Charlie’s worker, I know that, but I guess, yeah, I kind of think of Robert as a support for me too.”
“Good, because I think Robert is a very good social worker and Charlie is lucky to have him.” Maureen responded, looking like she was ready to get up, satisfied with the conversation they had just had. “I suppose you are lucky to have him too” she added as she stood up.
After this Maureen asked Tim to wait in her office while she went to get Charlie. He was partly relieved that the conversation was over but another part of him was sorry to see it end. In less than five minutes he had told Maureen things about himself that he hadn’t told anyone, that he hadn’t even really admitted to himself. Tim looked out of the window searching for the hawk that had apparently left in search of a field with more opportunity for whatever it was that hawks are looking for. Disappointed in not being able to locate the hawk, Tim sank back into the couch and allowed himself a brief moment to prepare for Charlie’s entrance into the room. He began to feel himself getting nervous as it occurred to him that he did not have any idea how long he would be permitted to stay or what they would find to do. Tim was suddenly very aware that was going to be he and Charlie’s first time being alone together in three years.
Tim sat up with a jolt when Maureen and Charlie interrupting his thoughts by walking into the room. Upon seeing him Charlie ran up and immediately wrapped her arms around him in a big bear hug that caught Tim by surprise both physically and emotionally. He couldn’t stop the smile he felt taking over his face from the unexpected hug and shied his eyes away from Maureen who was standing behind the two of them, still unsure of how he was expected to act around his daughter in this setting.
“Hi honey,” Tim said, finally breaking away from the hug enough to get a good look at his daughter.
“How long can you stay?” Charlie asked, prompting him to look at Maureen questioningly.
Maureen, apparently picking up on Tim’s hesitancy to answer the question without direction from her, told them both that, if it worked for Tim’s schedule, he was welcome to stay through dinner but that he should leave after that to allow Charlie time to settle in for the evening routine. Dinner, she said, was at 5:30. Tim said that would work fine and the three of them walked out of Maureen’s office with Tim still wondering what he and Charlie would do until it was time to eat.
“Can we go for a walk down to the river?” Charlie asked to neither of them in particular.
Again Tim looked towards Maureen for guidance, still unsure of the visitation rules. Maureen nodded and Charlie was off, grabbing Tim by his hand and pulling him forcefully down the hall towards the door leading outside. Tim obediently followed Charlie, mostly just happy to be doing anything with her at all. He was still a little nervous about how things would go for them once they were alone, worried that they would quickly run out of things to talk about or, worse, that they would find that all they had in common was Sarah’s death. Tim looked back at Maureen and thanked her sincerely just as Charlie led them out of Maureen’s sight and through the door.
Outside Tim quickly worked to acclimate to the brightness and drop in temperature. The autumn sun was still high in the sky but was battling a slight breeze for control of the climate. Charlie let go of Tim’s hand as soon as the door closed behind them and darted ahead on the well worn path that Tim could see worked its way along the edge of the corn before disappearing out of sight at the corner where field met woods.
“I bought a new car” Tim blurted, remembering the one thing he was eager to share with his daughter.
“You did? Cool. What kind?” Charlie asked.
“It’s a Chevy Cobalt.” Tim admitted.
“What color?” Charlie asked, apparently unfazed by make and model.
“Red.” Tim replied.
“Red!” Charlie shrieked. “Red’s my favorite color.”
“Nice” Tim said, looking directly at her “I bought it so I could come visit you whenever I want to.”
This stopped Charlie in her tracks.
“You did?” she asked.
“I did” Tim stated with pride. “I just bought it this morning in fact.”
Charlie smiled a smile that caused a long shudder to run down the length of Tim’s spine. He had missed that smile. The one she would flash at him many years ago when her favorite animal at the zoo looked her way or as they went from pet shop to pet shop looking at the cages full of puppies and kittens. Encouraged by the way things were going Tim broke off eye contact and stepped around Charlie and continued walking down the path.
“Can I see it?” She called after him. “The car I mean?”
“Of course.” he called back over his shoulder, “You can see it tonight before I leave if they will let you.”
“They’ll let me” Charlie responded, bounding forward and quickly making up what little ground he had gained on her.
They walked in relative silence for the next twenty minutes or so, following the trail and occasionally peppering in safe conversational tidbits about topics such as school or movies. Tim was slightly embarrassed that not only had he not seen any of the movies Charlie mentioned, or heard any of the music she liked, he was not even aware of most these things she counted as her favorites. He was briefly discouraged by this, only feeling better when Charlie told him that none of the staff at South Field liked what she liked either.
After a long stretch of walking through the woods Tim heard the sound of running water coming from up a head of them. Charlie kept up her quickened pace and seemed now to be walking with renewed purpose. Probably to get to this river or creek, Tim thought, as he maintained a slower pace allowing his daughter to get a head of him. Tim suddenly had an intense memory of a similar day when Charlie was about five years old and the two of them had taken one of their many adventures together to the banks of the Mississippi. Tim was amazed at how vivid this memory was, right down to specific details such as the speckled red, orange and yellow leave patterns on the river bank trees and a large water soaked tree branch floating lazily by them as they navigated the white sand beneath their feet.
Tim enjoyed this memory, supported by the similarities of the current moment, in silence until he finally reached the creek bed. Charlie had beaten him there and was already walking out onto a large tree that overhung the flowing water. Tim stood and watched her move slowly towards a point about eight feet from shore where she could safely sit down and look back at him. Sitting there Charlie beamed, clearly proud of her balance and bravery. Tim beamed back at her.
“I made it.” She said looking back at him from her perch just a few inches above the water flowing below.
“It looks like you found a nice little spot to be there” Tim said, unsure if it was such a good idea for her to be out there but not wanting to get into an argument about something that, for all he knew, she did every day.
After a few minutes Charlie scurried back to shore, hunching down close to the branch as she did, and offered her hand to Tim for balance as she drew near him. Once they were all safely on solid ground Charlie led Tim further down the path which continued to follow the creek. Again they walked in virtual silence. Eventually this path led them to the corn field and back towards the main South Field building. Tim glanced at his phone and saw that they would have to hurry a little in order to make it back by dinner.
“I want you to come back and live with me again” Tim finally said, realizing he was running out of time.
Tim had stopped walking as he said this, expecting Charlie to be stopped as well by the gravity of his statement. Instead she simply continued walking at her same pace without reacting in any way. Tim was discouraged by her lack of response and found himself unsure if she had even heard him.
“I know I screwed up before, pretty bad actually. I know that. And I know that you know that too. I guess maybe I don’t deserve to get you back. But I’ve been working at getting my shit together and I know you don’t deserve this.” Tim said as he raced to catch up with her. “I want you to come back to live with me. That’s what I’m working on.”
When Charlie finally stopped and turned around Tim could see that she had been crying. Instinctually he moved to put a hand on her arm before pulling it back again, not sure if such a gesture would make things better or worse for her. Tim could feel tears welling up in his own eyes as they stood, now less than three feet apart, each of them staring intently into the eyes of the other.
“I don’t even know where you live” Charlie said, breaking the awkward silence.
The simplicity of this statement caught Tim off guard and it took him a few seconds to process her words.
“You know where I live Charlie,” Tim stated. “I still live in the same apartment we lived in when you were born.”
This news seemed to come as a shock to Charlie who stepped back and looked away. Behind her Tim saw that the hawk he had seen earlier, or at least another one just like it, was back to hunting the now familiar corn field. Tim felt his eyes follow the hawk, seemingly unable to ignore the distraction and focus fully on his daughter as she stood before him. Charlie, apparently noticing Tim’s wondering eyes, looked up herself and located the hawk. The two of them, father and daughter, stood together and watched the soaring animal for nearly a full minute in tense silence until it stopped circling and suddenly dove below the horizon and out of sight.
“Then why did you disappear from my life?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t know Charlie,” Tim said. He could feel tears running freely down his cheek now. “I really don’t have a good answer to that question other than I am trying to be here now.”
For some reason this answer seemed to satisfy Charlie and Tim could feel his whole body relax as she walked up to him and placed her hand in his and once again began to lead him, slowly this time, in the direction of the South Field campus. They were greeted at the door by Donna and Tim could see by Charlie’s body language that this woman was important to her. He was disappointed to learn from Donna that Maureen had left already as he had been looking forward to seeing her again, even if only for a minute.
“How was the walk?” Donna asked as they began down the hall towards the dinning room.
‘It was good” Charlie answered, Tim nodding in agreement. “Dad let me go out on the big tree that goes into the river.”
Tim cringed as he noticed Donna’s disappointing look, leading him to understand that he had allowed Charlie to do something she should not have done. His worry over this infraction faded quickly as he noticed that Charlie had referred to him as “Dad.” Tim relaxed further when he saw that Charlie and Donna were both smiling in the wake of Charlie’s admission.
For dinner Tim and Charlie were allowed to eat at small table in a room separate from the rest of the kids and staff. The food was meatloaf with instant mashed potatoes and frozen corn and, although Tim could tell it was not very good food, there was a nostalgic quality about it leading Tim to eat his plateful hungrily. Charlie hardly ate at all, finishing only her potatoes and a carton of chocolate milk. Tim passed on the upside down pineapple cake that was offered for dessert, instead allowing Charlie to eat his piece after she had finished her own.
Tim and Charlie lingered over their plates, both of them knowing that the visit was coming to an end. Finally Tim saw the kids in the other room lining up by the door and knew that it was time for him to leave. Donna walked over and stood next to them patiently, waiting for them to realize the inevitable end without her having to say it. Charlie asked her if they could walk Tim out so she could see his car and Donna agreed, walking a few feet behind them as they exited through the buildings front doors. Charlie was excited to see Tim’s car and asked to sit in the front seat so she could “see what it felt like.”
“Next time I’ll take you for a ride.” Tim promised, making a point of saying this outside of Donna’s hearing range.
Charlie gave Tim a long tight hug that he was perfectly happy to hold onto as long as he could. They said goodbye and, just like that, Donna and Charlie walked back into the building and the visit was over. The sun was still hanging on to the last piece of sky as Tim drove away from South Field. He decided that since he was not in any particular hurry to get home he would drive the country roads north for a while, hoping to recapture some of the freedom he had felt driving these rural backroads on the way down. Despite the much cooler air he kept the windows open, enjoying the feel of wind hitting his face as he drove north towards Minneapolis. After about thirty minutes Tim came to a particularly flat stretch of highway and noticed an intense orange turning to pink sky off to the left side of the car. Tim slowed down to enjoy the view, trying to imagine when he had ever seen a more beautiful sunset.
Charlie was having a difficult time paying attention in class. Her teacher was droning on and on about the difference between nouns and verbs and all Charlie could think about was the meeting she was going to have with her social worker, Robert, at lunch time. Maureen had told her earlier that morning, while Charlie was lining up for school, that he was coming down and Charlie was anxious to talk to him about how well her visit with her father had gone and to ask him if it was really possible for her to leave South Field and move in with him.
Ever since her dad had driven down in his new red Chevy to visit her Charlie was having a difficult time thinking about much of anything else. She imagined herself riding next to him in his red car. She imagined herself moving all of her stuff back into her old bedroom, the same bedroom she had slept in when her mom was still alive. Everyone Charlie talked to at South Field about this, Maureen, Donna, even Joey, had told her the same thing; she needed to talk to Robert, that he was the one who would know what was going on with her father and that he was the one who would, ultimately, make the final decision about where Charlie would go when she was ready to leave South Field.
Charlie thought about causing a disruption so she could get out of class. Robert wasn’t going to be there until lunch time and, as much as Charlie hated sitting quietly in Maureen’s office after being kicked out of class, it seemed like anything would be better than spending the next two hours squirming in her seat and watching the minutes slowly tick away. Charlie, however, had decided that if she was ever going to be allowed to get out of South Field she was going to have to prove she could handle times like this. Knowing it was going to be difficult for her either way, Charlie pulled a notebook out of her backpack so she could pass the time by doodling and writing out the lyrics to her favorite songs.
Finally it was lunchtime. Charlie walked with the rest of her class to the cafeteria and tried hard not to seem too anxious. When everyone started to line up to get their food she decided that she couldn’t take it anymore and told her teacher that she was expecting her social worker and she wasn’t going to eat with anyone else. Charlie expected an argument over this but to her surprise the teacher just told her to sit and wait at one of the empty tables until Robert arrived. She was forced to sit alone for ten anxious minutes of staring at the door before she finally saw Maureen walk into the large room. Robert followed close behind her carrying a McDonald’s bag and two large drinks.
“Hi Charlie” Robert said, sitting down opposite her at the small cafeteria table.
Charlie retuned the greeting as Robert opened the McDonald’s bag, pulled out a small box of chicken nuggets for himself, and handed the rest of the contents along with one of the drinks to Charlie.
“I’m doing good in school and I’m at full privileges on the unit.” Charlie said as she pulled a cheeseburger and fries out of the bag and set them in front of her on the table.
“That’s what I hear.” Robert said back to her. “Great job Charlie.”
Charlie opened the sandwich wrapper and took the top of the bun off to inspect the cheeseburger. A smile came onto her face as she did.
“No mustard or pickles,” She commented, smiling up at Robert. “How did you remember?”
Robert shrugged at her as he popped a chicken nugget into his mouth. The two of them ate for a few minutes in comfortable silence until Robert finally spoke.
“So,” he asked, “How did the visit with your dad go?”
“Really, really good.” Charlie said excitedly. “We went for a walk and he showed me his new car that he bought just so he could come visit me whenever he wants to.”
“And is that what you want?” Robert asked.
“What?” Charlie said
“Your dad to visit you” Robert clarified.
“Of course that’s what I want,” Charlie responded back. “Why wouldn’t I want him to visit me?”
“I just wanted to be sure” Robert answered as he resumed eating the last of his lunch.
The two of them continued to eat in silence for several more minutes. Charlie looked back at the other kids who had finished their lunch and were lining up for the short walk back to class. She could feel herself squirm some in her chair, getting nervous that this signaled the end of her lunch too and that Robert would leave and she would be forced to go back to class herself. Robert, seemingly sensing this, smiled back at the other kids lining up and made a joke that Charlie was lucky he was there or she would be on her way back to class too. At this Charlie turned her attention back to her lunch, feeling her whole body relax in the wake of Robert’s simple comment.
“I want to go with my dad somewhere, to ride in his car sometime.” Charlie said without looking up from the french fry that she was dipping and re-dipping into the large mound of ketchup she had made in front of her on a napkin.
“Where would you want to go?” Robert asked.
“Anywhere, where ever you will let us go.” Charlie said.
“Actually,” Robert said smiling, “I think that is a good idea.”
“I want to go live with him too” Charlie said quickly, diverting her eyes away from Robert as she spoke.
Charlie could feel herself getting nervous. She could feel her body getting warmer and started to fidget in her chair. She even noticed that her breathing was getting shallow and quick. Charlie couldn’t help feeling that however Robert responded to this it would be the most important thing she had heard in a very long time. That her whole life depended on it.
“Let’s start with some visits and see where those take us” Robert said calmly after what seemed to Charlie to be a very long time.
At this Charlie started to relax again. Although Robert’s answer hadn’t been exactly what she was hoping for, it hadn’t been a flat out no either. Charlie and Robert lingered over the last of Charlie’s french fries. She told him about the walk she and her dad had taken just a few days ago, leaving out the part where he had let her risk going out on the overhung tree. Charlie told Robert about the good times she used to have with her dad when she was a little girl. Telling him about their trips to the zoo and the pet stores and even telling him how they had attempted to find the best egg rolls in town. This was the first time Charlie had ever told Robert any of these things, the first time she had talked to anyone about this in a very long time. For Charlie, these were memories she had stored away, memories that had just started coming back slowly about a month earlier when her father had suddenly shown up at her review meeting, memories that had been getting stronger ever since.
After finally finishing their long lunch together Charlie agreed to walk Robert back up to the main office and to stop with him at Maureen’s office along the way. Maureen, it seemed to Charlie, was expecting them and when the three of them discussed a plan for Charlie and her father to begin to have regularly scheduled off ground visits, it seemed to Charlie that this too had been previously planned upon by Robert and Maureen. Although it often bothered Charlie when adults made plans without her present and then pretended that she had been part of the planning all along, this time it did not. She was so happy just to have this plan in place that she didn’t even care how it had been hatched.
Before Robert left he agreed to call Charlie’s father and let him know that he was giving official approval for him to begin unsupervised, off site, day visits. Maureen said that she too would call Tim to discuss this and that she would work with him to try and schedule something as soon as possible. Charlie was beaming from this news and was not doing a very good job of hiding it. She was noticeably giddy as Maureen walked her back to school and for the rest of the day she was in a great mood, even apologizing to her teachers for the multiple reminders she received to stay on task and to stop disrupting the class with her constant chatter. That evening she attempted multiple times to contact her dad, each time getting the answering machine. At first Charlie was frustrated by this but eventually she was able to accept that he was probably just at work. That night she had a very difficult time falling asleep despite the medication she took, medication which usually had her soundly asleep within minutes of going to bed. Charlie kept imagining what it would be like to move back home with her dad, the fun they would have, how she would decorate her old bedroom and which of her friends would still be in the neighborhood. In her mind she was finally going home.
Robert woke up much earlier than his usual time with a stark realization. It was time for him to let Abby go completely. This realization was very clear to Robert, with no room for interpretation, and very little doubt in his mind. After waking up with this thought, Robert lay in his bed for another 30 minutes simply basking in the peaceful feeling that had come over him. He had been missing Abby more and more and had recently noticed that it was having an effect on how he was responding socially. Deep down he knew that, although she may still be willing to be friends, Abby was not ever coming back to him. She had moved to Chicago and moved on. Waking up with the decision to finally do the same was liberating for Robert.
The rest of the morning was enjoyable. Robert, having finally gotten out of bed a full hour earlier then usual, walked through his normal routine at a relaxed pace. He made himself a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs with tortillas and ate it quietly at the dining room table with black coffee and orange juice. As he ate Robert checked the previous nights basketball scores on his internet connected cell phone and decided that he would make more of an effort to get to know the new woman in the adult chemical dependency department, the one with the cute smile that always seemed to be flashing his way whenever their paths crossed.
After breakfast Robert gathered his work materials and prepared for his first meeting of the day. He was meeting Minnie at her oldest son Tre’s school for a meeting with the boy’s teachers and principal to address the number of fights he had been getting in lately. Minnie had called Robert, frantic, earlier in the week worried that Tre was going to be kicked out of school. After this meeting Robert was going back to the office for a few hours before finishing the day with a meeting at Tim Brunell’s house to discuss the reunification plans with Charlie. Robert’s good mood from his early morning epiphany just increased as he imagined a pretty straight forward day of paperwork bookended by meetings regarding two of his favorite cases.
The school meeting didn’t exactly go as expected but overall it had gone well, although it had taken Robert a good amount of time to convince Minnie of that once the meeting had ended. Tre was in fact being asked to leave the school. He had been fighting quite a bit, which was not okay, but also the principal made the case that the school they wanted to move him to would do a much better job of meeting his educational needs. When this decision was originally presented Minnie’s initial response was to yell at everyone in the room, Robert included, about how she was sick of her kids being thrown away and that kids with a mental illness deserved a good education too. Eventually she calmed down enough for the principal to explain that he agreed with her, which was why he was recommending Tre for a new school program that catered to his particular issues by using smaller class sizes and more hands on experiential learning opportunities. The principal then went on to explain that this decision had more to do with Tre’s academic needs than his fighting. Finally Minnie agreed, although she remained skeptical and ended the meeting by threatening to sue the school if it didn’t work out.
Once back at the office Robert’s time went very quick. Between phone messages and emails he barely had enough time to scarf down the ham sandwich he bought at the lunch cart. He did find time to sit down with his supervisor Randy and catch him up on his reunification efforts with Charlie and Tim. Randy was encouraged and thought that, after everything the family had been through, Robert’s plan was a good one. This support felt good to Robert who had been having doubts about Tim creep into his thoughts on occasion. Randy did suggest that Robert have Tim agree to random drug testing, at least until Charlie was moved back home. Robert thanked his supervisor for his time and was rewarded with two new case files.
Tim’s apartment looked dark from the outside as Robert pulled up and he wondered if maybe Tim had forgotten the meeting they had scheduled. Robert took his time getting out of the car, thinking about what he would do if Tim wasn’t there. He had had many meetings where the other person had forgotten or even just plain not shown up, but Robert had to admit to himself that it would be disappointing to him for Charlie’s sake if Tim were indeed not home.
The air was the kind of damp cool winter air that reminded Robert of something in his past that he couldn’t quite place. It just had a familiar quality. Robert paused to search his pockets for his phone and wallet before ringing the doorbell to Tim’s apartment. Immediately he heard Tim’s heavy footsteps coming to let him into the dark apartment. Tim locked the door behind them as they walked into the living room and sat down in the same exact seats they had sat in when they had first met several months earlier. Tim looked relaxed but tired as he sat down across from Robert, waiting silently for the social worker to begin the conversation.
“I hear you had a pretty good visit with Charlie last week” Robert started.
“I thought so” Tim said back to him quickly.
Robert surveyed the room, recognizing the lived in quality of an apartment belonging to a single man of his generation. The dining room table was cluttered with a variety of personal items that looked like they had been straightened up for the benefit for Robert’s visit. The wood floors appeared not to have been swept in a long time. The second hand living room furniture was stained and dusty and badly in need of an upgrade. Robert allowed a long silence and it occurred to him his apartment would not look much better if their roles were somehow reversed.
“It was great to spend some time just the two of us, it really was” Tim said, showing more emotion than Robert had seen out of him before. “All we did was go for a short walk, you know, but there were moments when it seemed like everything that has happened sort of melted away for a bit and it was just me and her. Just father and daughter.”
“So what’s next?” Robert asked. “Where are you hoping this goes?”
Tim paused before answering. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Between you and Charlie” Robert said, “what are you working towards?”
Tim stared at Robert for a long time with a look of disbelief painting his face.
“I want her back” Tim said finally, “I want her to live with me again.”
At this Robert sat back and settled deeply into the couch, almost sinking completely into the worn out cushions.
“I think that’s what she wants too” Robert said, registering the relief on Tim’s face as he said this.
They spent the rest of the visit planning out timetables. Tim was anxious to set up overnight visits and a specific date for Charlie to move home. Robert cautioned him to slow down some, warning that this transition, although exciting, would be more difficult than expected for both of them. They agreed upon three or four more day passes down near South Field before setting up an overnight. Tim was visibly disappointed with the pace that Robert was setting but Robert held his ground, stressing the importance of process over simply making the move. In the end Tim seemed to accept this and agreed to take it slowly.
The last thing they discussed before Robert left was the idea that Tim would need to agree to random drug testing, at least until Charlie did finally move back in with him. Robert had been nervous to bring this up, expecting Tim to be upset at this additional barrier being placed between him and his daughter. Tim, however, seemed prepared for this, as if he had been expecting it all along, and agreed readily. Robert told Tim that he would receive occasional phone calls from the testing site and that he would then be expected to go in on his own to submit a urine sample within 24 hours.
Robert left Tim’s apartment feeling very good about how the meeting had gone. The sun had dipped out of sight and the sky had turned a deep shade of blue that only seemed to exist at dusk during the dead of winter. Robert had liked Charlie since she first landed on his case load and had decided that, despite all of the mistakes in Tim’s past, he liked him too. Robert found himself rooting for them both, envisioning the happiness he imagined they would both feel moving back together and finally moving forward again as a family. The snow and ice crunched beneath the weight of Robert’s car tires as he found an opening and pulled into the rush hour traffic, feeling the satisfaction of a job well done and considering his options for take out dinner as he headed home.
Tim was especially excited during the drive down to South Field. Although this was not to be the first off grounds visit he’d with Charlie since they had been approved, this was to be the longest and it was starting to feel to him like he was really getting her back. During the first two alone visits together they had driven to the nearest town to eat dinner at a local restaurant. As exciting as it had been for him, for both of them, it had felt forced. Both times the two hours they were given had proven just enough to go out to eat as long as they remained efficient and, to Charlie’s disappointment, skipped dessert. This time Tim had been allowed a five or six hour visit. Enough time, he figured, to make it to the mall in Austin where they planned to do some shopping and find a restaurant that was a little more to their liking. Tim had even promised a stop at Dairy Queen, despite the cold winter weather, in hopes of sharing a blizzard and the memory of happier times.
Charlie was granted the afternoon off school for the visit and Tim could see her looking anxiously out the front lobby window as he pulled up. The air was heavy with a distinct threat of snow as Tim climbed out of the car to meet her. He had anxiously watched the weather in the news recast after getting home from work late the evening before and had quickly thrown some extra warm clothing, including his only hat and gloves, into his backpack after hearing the weather man predict snow in the afternoon followed by cooling temperatures. Tim had also been pleasantly surprised to find that the credit card he’d applied for several months earlier came in the mail while he was at work. This was Tim’s first ever credit card so he was quite pleased to see that he was allowed a $1000 line of credit. Immediately Tim followed the directions to activate the card and stuffed it into his backpack, promising himself that he would use it only for emergencies.
Tim could sense Charlie’s excitement as she bounced around him on the way to the car. Charlie was prepared for cold weather as well, wearing a full winter jacket along with a brightly colored hat and mittens. Tim was handed her bedtime medication in a little sealed envelope and instructed to give them to her promptly at 8pm in the event that poor weather restricted their ability to be back on time. The clouds hung low in the sky as they drove away from the parking lot with no particular plan in mind. It was just the two of them off together on an adventure like many years ago when Charlie was a much younger girl.
The drive into town was very enjoyable. Tim took his time along the rural back roads allowing Charlie to fill him in on all of the latest news in her life. She told him how one of the girls she was always arguing with, Ashley, had been discharged home a week or so earlier and how she she had become friends with the other girl, Jen, in her absence. Charlie told Tim all about the boy she liked and how he was suspended from school for fighting but that it wasn’t his fault. She talked to him about Hannah Montana, or Miley Cyrus, or whatever her name was, and how she was in some kind of trouble for drugs and not wearing enough clothes in some pictures. Tim just sat back and listened, marveling at the maturity of his daughter who was clearly no longer the little girl he imagined her to be. Not the little girl she was when he last really knew her.
The mall in Austin was not exactly what Tim expected. It was more like a half sized mall that had been mostly abandoned and closed down. It was completely unlike the crowded and growing malls he avoided as much as possible that surrounded the city. The primary store was a Shopko, which somehow made Tim feel like he was betraying the Minneapolis Target store where he did most of his shopping. Otherwise there was a smattering of stores, most of which seemed to Tim like they should have gone out of business years earlier. Tim had expected several restaurants but there was nothing other than a glorified snack bar or a store selling flavored popcorn and candy.
Despite the sparse conditions of the Austin Mall, Tim and Charlie enjoyed themselves quite a bit. They walked in and out of each store, inspecting the offerings and commenting to each other on the value, or lack of value, on the various articles of clothing and decor. Charlie even surprised Tim by pulling a few dollars out of her pocket and buying herself a small coin purse at the dollar store. She did this independently, without asking for money or permission, and although part of Tim was impressed with her independence, another part of him felt a peculiar sadness that she had grown up so much in the past three years without his having been there.
After about an hour and a half, when they had been through as many of the stores as they felt the need to see, Tim and Charlie decided to go out and search for a place to have dinner. The sun was setting and Tim couldn’t help but notice the bright red patterned clouds as he and Charlie walked together to the car. Charlie continued to chat about the issues important to a teenage girl, not seeming to notice the fire red sky above her. Tim listened loosely to his daughter, memorized by the overall simplicity and beauty of the moment.
Once in the car they drove around the city looking for a place to eat dinner. Tim, who had been hoping for somewhere really special to take Charlie, reluctantly agreed to her pleas to have dinner at the Applebee’s. He parked the car in the nearly empty lot and the two of them got out and quickly walked inside to get out of the cold. It was warm inside the bland but familiar restaurant and Charlie immediately went to work studying the menu for the prefect meal.
“Anything that is not South Field food will be good to me” she said, still continuing to sift through her options.
Tim was moving much slower, taking in the surroundings as he removed his coat. It was approaching dinnertime and about half of the tables were full. Seated at the other tables were mostly families with children ranging in age from sullen teenagers to infants still regulated to their portable car seat. Tim noted that if the people from the other tables looked at them at all they would quickly look away, apparently disinterested in what appeared to be just another normal family. He and Charlie were simply a father and daughter having an early dinner, perhaps fending for themselves while mom worked late or on their way to an older brothers varsity hockey game. Tim felt a strong sense of relief at just how unremarkable he and Charlie were. They were becoming a family again, with struggles and joys just like anyone else.
This relief gave way to guarded satisfaction as Tim pulled out his cell phone and noticed that he had missed a call and had one voice message. Worried that it might be South Field calling with additional expectations for Charlie he decided to listen to the message immediately. To his surprise it was Robert asking Tim to call him as soon as he could. Tim excused himself from the table, Charlie happy to continue studying the menu options, while Tim found a quiet nook near the bathroom from which to make the call. He braced himself as he dialed, unsure of what he was worried about. Robert answered on the second ring.
“Robert, it’s Tim calling you back” he said quickly, just trying to get the words out successfully.
“Tim,” Robert replied back, “I’m glad you got the message, there is something I really need to talk to you about.”
Tim felt his anxiety continuing to rise as he struggled to guess what Robert could possibly be calling about.
“What’s up?” he finally managed.
“Well, unfortunately I have some difficult news, so I’m just going to lay it out.” Robert said, causing Tim’s anxiety to rise even higher.
Tim felt his heart beating fast in his chest and the muscles in his stomach tighten as he remained silent, waiting for Robert to give him whatever news he had.
“Are you still there?” Robert asked.
“Yeah, I’m here. What’s up?” Tim said back, trying to mask his anxiety.
“I just got back the results from the drug test you took a while back and you didn’t pass.” Robert said bluntly.
Tim almost fell over, steadying himself on the counter that must have once housed a pay phone, his knees giving out on him upon hearing Robert’s words.
“What? What drug test?” Tim asked with a hint of anger, looking back across the restaurant at Charlie who was still wearing her winter coat as she read the menu. “I only took one test and it was like three months ago.”
Tim searched his mind for how this could have happened. He had mostly stopped smoking pot since the possibility of getting Charlie back had come up and it had been a long time since he had smoked at all.
“It’s impossible Robert.” Tim pleaded. “I haven’t smoked any pot in months.”
“I’m sorry Tim, I’m just reporting what I have been told.” Robert went on, “the report I was given says that you had come in per county request on October 12th and provided a urine sample and that the sample tested dirty.”
“October 12th, that was a damn long time ago, a damn long time,” Tim snapped back, reeling with anger at the possibility that this failed drug test was going to ruin everything for him and Charlie.
Tim felt himself getting dizzy, he felt beads of sweat forming beneath his hair, preparing themselves to roll down his face and neck. His hands were shaking and damp, almost causing him to drop the phone. He felt like his whole life was unraveling, again.
“It’s impossible..” Tim started to say when suddenly it hit him. He remembered the night before he had driven down to visit Charlie for the first time on his own. Tim remembered how he had been unable to sleep and had finally relented to smoking some weed in the middle of the night so he could stop his reeling thoughts and get the sleep he needed. This had been the last time he had smoked. The last time he had even thought about it really. Between working 40-50 hours per week at the video store and driving down whenever he could to spend time with Charlie, Tim had been to busy to smoke pot. He couldn’t believe that this was coming back up again. The same reason he had lost Charlie in the first place was now coming up and ruining everything again. Tim’s whole body went limp as hopelessness took over.
“I know it probably sounds bad Tim” Robert said, still using that same calm voice he always seemed to have no matter what the situation, “and I don’t know why it took so long for us to get these results. That happens over there sometimes.”
“So what now?” Tim asked, surprising himself with the calmness of his voice. “What does this mean for me and Charlie.”
Robert paused for a long time before responding.
“I don’t know Tim, that’s something we will have to talk more about.” Robert said when he finally broke the tense silence. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it really.”
“So do I need to bring Charlie back to South Field now or can we at least finish our dinner?” Tim asked, suddenly focusing on the present.
“Finish your dinner Tim, have a nice visit with your daughter. No one at South Field even knows about this right now. Just have a good time tonight with Charlie and you and I can talk tomorrow.” Robert said, still using that same intimidatingly calm voice.
After ending the conversation with Robert, Tim walked into the bathroom and tried to gather himself. He was reeling from the news of his failed drug test. Although Robert had said not to worry about it Tim knew better, knew that this was exactly what everyone had expected from him all along, exactly the excuse they were looking for to keep Charlie from him forever. Tim became aware that Charlie had now been sitting alone for a long time and was probably starting to wonder what happened to him. He quickly splashed some water onto his face, the coldness of the water mixing with the warm tears and sweat that had begun to run down his cheeks. Tim patted his face dry with a paper towel as he headed back to the table with no idea what to do or say.
“Sorry it took me so long Charlie,” Tim said as he sat back down across from her. “I guess that took longer than I thought it would.”
“I decided what I want to eat,” Charlie responded, not to seeming to care about, or even have noticed, his absence. “I want the Chicken and cheese quesadilla with no tomatoes and a Dr. Pepper.”
This simple response relaxed Tim some and he decided to enjoy their dinner as he tried to decide what to do now. The waitress arrived and asked what they would like, clearly having been waiting for Tim to return to the table before coming over. Tim motioned for Charlie to order and, after she did, told the waitress that he would have the exact same thing, except that he would take tomatoes on his quesadilla. The waitress wrote down the order and their left to get the beverages. Tim could feel himself shaking tiny little shakes and fought to control the wave of emotion that was washing over him. Charlie seemed to sense that Tim was upset and began nervously talking about school again. This did help Tim relax some and for the rest of the meal he was able focus on his daughter, hushing the best he could the occasional inner dialogue reminding him that this could be the last time he would ever even see her.
The food was better than Tim expected and he allowed them to linger over their dinner, pushing it to the point that they would not make it back to South Field by the time they were expected. It had finally begun to snow and the large flakes drifted slowly from the sky, illuminated by the parking lot streetlights. Once they were seated in the car Tim felt all his muscles tighten simultaneously as he struggled for words. Finally he surprised himself by just blurting it out.
“I failed a drug test Charlie,” he said. “That was the call I got when we were at dinner. It was Robert.”
Tim expected and hoped that Charlie would say something in response to this revelation. Instead she reacted with a long uncomfortable silence. Tim was just beginning to wonder if she even heard him when realized she was crying. What had apparently started out as quiet sobs began to build into audible sniffles and then, finally, exaggerated wails. The open display of pain from his daughter was too much for Tim to handle and he quickly went to work at trying to make things somehow better.
“I’m sorry honey, it was one time. Really,” Tim heard himself saying, “and it was months ago.”
Charlie continued crying as if he was not even talking, which made Tim even more desperate to make it better.
“I don’t know what to say Charlie,” Tim continued, starting to feel himself growing angry at the circumstances facing them. “All I know is they better fucking not take you from me again. I don’t think I could handle that. I lost you once already and I’m not losing you again.”
This seemed to snap Charlie out of her crying fit some as she turned to face her father, her wails subsiding back into staccato sobs which she attempted to speak between.
“I can’t stay there anymore dad” Charlie said in a low hiccupy voice. “Everyone hates me there. Everyone. And I already told them that I was going to leave soon and live with you. What am I supposed to do now?”
Tim could see the tears and make up blending into a steady stream running down both sides of Charlie’s face. His anxiety and guilt now replaced fully by anger which was allowing him to feel much more in control.
“Well what do you think we should do about it Charlie?” He asked abruptly. “I fucked up and now who knows what’s going to happen. We both know what happened last time.”
“Let’s just go somewhere. Why even take me back at all if they’re just going to make me live at South Field forever. I hate it. We should just go.”
The absurdity of this suggestion caught Tim off guard. Could they really do that? What would happen if they did. Would he go to jail? Would they just let them go? She was, after all, his daughter. He was reeling at just the thought of it.
“Where would we go?” Tim asked, surprised that he would even consider such a thing?
“California” Charlie said hopefully, sitting upright in the passenger seat of Tim’s car. “Like we used to talk about when I was little.”
Tim suddenly remembered the credit card that he had just activated. He began to calculate the costs in his head and what the consequences would be. Charlie was animated now in her seat, looking around the car and at Tim with a look of adventure and excitement that Tim had not seen in her for a long time.
“I’ve never even seen the ocean,” Charlie said, “and that’s just not fair. I want to swim in the ocean, Dad, don’t you want to swim in the ocean?”
Tim looked at his daughter and felt the muscles in his face adjust to match the big smile that had swept across her face. He did want to swim in the ocean. It was something he had never done either. He had never even seen the ocean in fact and, in that instant, he decided that before they took his daughter away from him again, this time probably forever, they would swim in the ocean.
“I do want to swim in the ocean Charlie, I really do,” Tim said calmly looking out the windows of the car at the snow which continued to fall in large illuminated flakes. “Are you up for a bit of a drive?”
Charlie nodded her agreement as Tim engaged the cars transmission and they were off without another word. The Applebee’s was situated just off the interstate and within minutes they were on the road to California. Tim half expected that they would talk themselves out of it but 40 minutes later, as they drove in silence past the exit which would have brought them back to South Field, Tim didn’t even slow down.
They drove out of the snow about two hours into South Dakota. Tim could see the clouds at the edge of the storm reflecting in the nearly full moon. The sky was filled with bright clear stars and the land around them was visible from the car. Charlie, who had spent the past few hours in relative silence, began to perk up.
“How much further until California?” she suddenly asked, breaking the silence.
“Not sure?” Tim answered. “A very long time I think.”
For the next two hours they talked about the adventures they would have once they got to California. Both speculated on how warm it would be and what it would feel like to swim in the ocean. Charlie told Tim that she had heard from a girl at school that the ocean tasted like salt and that it stung your eyes if you didn’t close them tight enough. Tim simply laughed and promised her that they would both find out soon enough. The road through South Dakota was amazing in its straightness and in the way it just seemed to go on and on forever without any variation. The tone of the conversation changed dramatically when Charlie brought up the possibility of their staying to live in California.
“Can’t we just stay when get there?” she asked. “We could get an apartment and you could get a job and I’ll go to school. I’ll go everyday, I promise.”
Tim, who had been ignoring the reality of their situation to focus on driving, felt the emotions from earlier that evening building back up in him. As much as liked the sound of Charlie’s idea he knew it couldn’t really work. He knew that somehow their truth would catch up with them.
“That would be nice Charlie” Tim said truthfully. “I guess we’ll have to see what happens when we get there.”
“What if they just try to take me away again?” Charlie continued with a hint of drama building in her voice. “I can’t go back to live at South Field. You know that. I need to live with you. With my family.”
Once again Tim could feel the warmth of tears running down his face and he fought within himself to project confidence when he finally responded to Charlie.
“I know honey, I do. That’s what I want too. Like I said, we will have to see what happens.” As he said this Tim noticed that it was time again to fill the gas tank. “Let’s stop to get something to eat and some gas and for now just worry about getting to California.”
The stop did them both some good. Tim bought trail mix and coffee while Charlie opted for Peanut M&M’s and Mountain Dew. Tim was relieved that the credit card worked as he had used most of his cash to buy gas in Minnesota and this was the first time he had used the card at all. The night sky continued to be bright as the moon and stars reflected off the fallen snow that covered most of the ground on either side of the interstate. Tim also bought a cheap road map which he immediately handed to Charlie, telling her she was in charge of navigation. The landscape was becoming more varied as they got further West and it occurred to Tim that they had been gone for a long time now and there might be police after them. Suddenly Tim remembered Charlie’s medication in his jacket pocket.
“What about your meds Charlie?” Tim asked. “Maybe you should take those now before it gets too late.”
“We don’t even have any meds for tomorrow so it really doesn’t even matter does it?” Charlie replied.
Tim wasn’t quite sure what to think about this and it occurred to him that there were some things about this whole driving to California plan that he hadn’t really thought through. What would happen when Charlie ran out of medication? Would it be better to save some for the next day or better to just stay on track for as long as possible. Tim and Charlie spent a good forty five minutes discussing these possibilities before they finally decided to have her take the medicine they had with them now so that she could try to get some sleep while he drove them through the night. Tim pulled out the little white envelope with the words “Charlie F, Bedtime” written in black sharpie and handed it to his daughter. Charlie took the pills one by one, washing them down with practiced sips from what remained of her Mountain Dew.
It was well after midnight and the medication had an almost instantaneous effect. Charlie’s bubbly mood began to slow down and, as she got tired, she became reflective. Tim was in a driving induced trance, watching the the road rush up on them mile after mile, as Charlie began to talk about the adventures the two of them had enjoyed many years earlier. Tim was amazed at the specificity of her memories, how she could still recall the name of the big gorilla at the zoo or what flavor Blizzard they had shared the day she had burned her leg on the hot metal slide at the park. Tim tried to join in but his memories simply were not as clear as hers and he found he had little to add other than general comments about how much he too had enjoyed those trips together.
After a long silence Charlie once again surprised Tim by bringing up Sarah.
“I miss Mom,” She said flatly. “Do you miss her too?”
Although this question caught Tim by surprise he did manage to answer her directly and honestly.
“I do miss her, Charlie, when I think of her. The truth is,” Tim continued, “I don’t really think about her very often.”
“I do.” Charlie said back to him. “I think about her everyday. I always have. Ever since she died I thought about her. I think about you too.”
Tim realized how little he and Charlie had spoken about Sarah’s death since they had come back into each others life and he wondered if they ever even talked about it right after it had happened. Charlie had been such a little girl then and he had been a mess. He really couldn’t stop the tears now and when he looked over at Charlie he saw that she too had a stream of tears rolling down her face and reflecting in the moonlight.
“Your Mom’s death sucked” Tim heard himself say, “and you didn’t deserve that. Neither of us did. And look at us. I guess it kind of messed us up huh?”
“Pretty much.” Charlie said. “Pretty much.”
After this they drove again in silence for a long time. Tim actually thought that Charlie had fallen asleep from the unnatural looking the way she was leaning against the car door.
“You know Mom was pretty much the only one who ever called me Charlotte,” Charlie said finally, keeping her face turned toward the window and away from Tim as she spoke.
“I suppose you’re right. I never really thought about it. I guess I always just called you Charlie. Ever since you were a baby” Tim admitted.
“Everyone does, pretty much. Except mom used to call me Charlotte and now no one ever does.” Charlie went on.
“No one ever calls you Charlotte?” Tim asked.
“Sometimes, I guess.” Charlie answered “When they first meet me but it never sounds right you know? Not like when mom called me that, and then everyone just goes back to calling my Charlie.”
“Don’t you like being Charlie?” Tim asked, now worried about the name he and Sarah had given their daughter.
I do like Charlie,” she said “Really. But I like Charlotte too and it’s like when mom died the name Charlotte died too. It’s hard to explain but it would be nice to be called Charlotte sometimes.”
“I’ll see what I can do, Charlotte” Tim said back, trying to add some levity to the conversation.
At this Charlie simply turned to him and smiled. Twenty minutes later she leaned back against the door and fell asleep. Tim could tell Charlie was sleeping now by her heavy rhythmic breathing and exaggerated stillness. The landscape, still illuminated by the snow reflected moonlight, continued to gather texture as they moved further west. Tim noticed that the signs for Wall Drug were increasing and, alone now with his thoughts, he attempted to settle into a rhythm of just driving. It did not take long for his thoughts to take over.
Over the years Tim had learned that he was in trouble anytime he noticed the same negative thought forcefully repeating itself in his mind. The thought that crept in and kept coming back now was simple and hard to ignore: he had really fucked up this time, he would never see Charlie again, he would lose everything he had recently gained and might even go to jail. No matter what he did this line of thinking returned and took over. He tried the radio, he begged himself to consider other possible outcomes. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe this would just set he and Charlie back a few months. It might even help everyone see how serious they both were about once again creating a life together. He tried to just focus on the adventure. He and his daughter were driving to California to swim in the ocean for the first time. Regardless of outcome, he tried to convince himself, this was an opportunity to be enjoyed. Besides, he reminded himself, whatever consequences that were coming from this were already on the way. He might as well try to relax and at least enjoy the trip.
Nothing worked. The miles piled up behind them and the dark thoughts just kept coming. Tim could’t escape the belief that he had ruined everything for both he and Charlie. He could feel the nervous sweat dripping off his neck and sliding down into a pool at the small of his back. He felt his hands, also wet from sweat, struggling to grip the steering wheel. Tim shuddered as the thought of simply driving off the road and finally ending the misery for both he and his daughter entered his mind. Although he knew he would never act on such an impulse, just thinking it freaked him out. He knew that something needed to change.
It was just past one o’clock in the morning, about 30 miles east of the Wall Drug exit, and Tim found himself thinking about turing around. He didn’t want to and he was horrified at the thought of letting Charlie down once again, but he was beginning to feel that he had little choice. He had fucked up, bad this time, and his anxiety was through the roof. Something needed to change, he knew, or he was simply not going to make it. Tim looked over at Charlie who was sleeping peacefully against the cold door. He wondered what she was dreaming and guessed she was dreaming about the warm salt water of the ocean and what it would feel like to to finally taste the great Pacific. Seeing Charlie sleep reminded Tim of those nights long ago when he would sneak into her room and cover her back up with the blankets that had fallen onto the floor next to her bed. It occurred to him that he could cover her now with his jacket which was sitting unused in the the backseat.
As Tim briefly took his eyes off the road in front of him to reach back for his coat his eyes caught sight of his backpack which was also sitting on the backseat. Immediately it occurred to him that he had weed in that backpack. Tim gasped at this thought and the strange way his memory worked. The weed was left over from long ago, stuffed quickly into a side pocket of the backpack and forgotten that night he had last smoked. Tim had not been conscious of this when he had packed his bag just a day earlier. In fact, he thought, had he been aware of it he would have taken it out and probably even thrown it away. He was past that part of his life. But everything changed again with the phone call from Robert only a few hours earlier. The phone call that now seemed like it had taken place months ago.
Tim realized that he was going to smoke his weed as instantly as he had recognized that he even had it. He had been down this path many times before and as much as he knew that it was a bad idea, a terrible and reckless idea really, he also knew that the opportunity to quiet the dark thoughts that had taken over his thinking would trump anything else. If he stopped and smoked the thoughts would stop and he would be energized and able to keep driving. He and Charlie would make it to California. Tim quickly grabbed his jacket and threw it across Charlie’s body and turned his attention back to the road.
He stopped at the first 24 hour truck stop he found. Just the decision to smoke pot had helped him relax some. Tim filled the gas tank and went inside to buy coffee, bottled water, and some Peanut M&M’s for himself. He was relieved to find that this was one of those truck stops where the bathrooms were attached to the outside of the building. He went back to the car, dropped off his purchases and grabbed the backpack before heading to the bathroom. He was back on the road within 10 minutes, relieved that Charlie had somehow managed to sleep through the entire stop.
The change for Tim was instantaneous. Just as he had last used pot to settle his inner voices so he could sleep he he had now used it to settle those same voices so he could relax. It did not take him long to find a driving rhythm. He found a classic rock station out of Spearfish and just drove. His quick glance at the map while still back at the truck stop had convinced him to head south towards Denver so they could cross the Rockies in Colorado. The moonlight was still strong and, as he climbed the steep incline into the Black Hills, Tim could see the occasional outline of large animals sitting by the side of the road. This slowed him down some and he gasped when he finally saw that they were a kind of large deer and that some of them had very big antlers. Tim had never seen anything quite like if before and it struck him both beautiful and powerful at the same time.
Tim had another surprise as he began to notice an occasional glimpse of the Mount Rushmore presidents shimmering in the moonlight as he twisted his way up the road. He considered waking Charlie up to see this but decided to let her sleep, thinking she might be hard to wake given how soundly she had slept these past few hours. Tim just enjoyed the random beauty of the moment and drove on, drove out of the shadow of Mount Rushmore, eventually out of South Dakota and into Wyoming and Colorado. His stop at the truck stop had worked just as he thought it would. Knew it would. Tim made one more stop for gas and again snuck into the bathroom to smoke some weed. Once again Charlie slept through the whole thing. He was in a groove now and felt like he could drive forever so he just kept going.
Charlie woke up cold and startled. She had always been a sound sleeper and, especially with the medication she took, was prone to waking up suddenly and confused. This morning it took her longer than usual to decipher where she was and even then she wasn’t exactly sure. She was in a car, parked at a rest area, surrounded by mountains and snow. Her father was sleeping in the driver’s seat next to her and snoring loudly. It was cold in the car and most of the windows were iced up on the inside from the breathing. Charlie also needed to go to the bathroom very badly.
Because the car was turned off Charlie had no way of knowing what time it was. She could tell that it was early by the fact that the sun was not yet fully up. Her need for the bathroom was becoming more urgent as she continued the waking up process. Charlie wondered what state they were in. Had they made it all the way to California? She didn’t think so because she didn’t think it would be so cold in California. She also wondered how long she had been asleep and how long her dad had driven before he decided to pull over to sleep himself.
Charlie saw a building outside that looked like it might have a bathroom and decided to go for it. She opened the car door and stepped outside into the cold wet air and pushed the door closed behind her quietly so she wouldn’t wake up her still sleeping father. She moved quickly to the building, her sole focus now on her need to use a bathroom, and was relieved to find that there was indeed an unlocked bathroom. Charlie remained in the bathroom for a long time, studying herself in the mirror and thinking about the events of the past day. What had started off as a simple dinner with her dad had turned, without warning, into an intense emotional situation once they found out he had failed another drug test. This had then led them to the crazy decision to drive to California and now Charlie didn’t know where she was, if she would go back to Minnesota, or if this would be the last time she ever spent with her dad. There was no way of knowing what would happen and it was starting to freak her out. On top off it all she suddenly remembered that she was out of medication.
Charlie wondered if her dad had woken up yet and if he would be upset with her for leaving the car without telling him. At South Field she was not allowed to do anything, including going to the bathroom, without first getting permission from the staff. Charlie washed her face for a second time in warm water, using the pink soap handed out by the dispenser attached to the wall next to the sink. She took her time doing this, allowing herself to feel the warm water and soap on her skin, and was startled greatly when the door opened without warning and a woman she had never seen before walked in. The woman was wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over her head in a way that made it appear to Charlie like she had something to hide. Like she too was running from something. Charlie nodded nervously at this woman who nodded back quickly before disappearing into the bathroom stall.
Seeing this woman reoriented Charlie to her current situation and the fact that she still had no idea where she was or what was going to happen next. She grabbed a paper towel, ripping it in the process, wiped the remaining water and soap off her face the best she could, and stepped back outside. She could see that there were now two cars in the parking lot; her dad’s car, which still looked dark and abandoned sitting on the far side of the lot, and another car presumably belonging to the mystery woman. This second car was still running and parked sideways across three parking spaces right in front of the building. The sun had poked it’s way above the horizon and was illuminating the mountains opposite it into a beautiful pinkish glow. Charlie had never seen mountains before and was in awe as she walked slowly back to the car.
Charlie’s dad woke up when she slammed the car door shut as she slid back into the passenger seat.
“What time is it?” Tim asked.
“How would I know?” Charlie answered him. “I don’t even know where we are.”
Tim started the car which immedialy turned on the dashboard clock, telling them both that it was 7:38 A.M.
“Colorado” Tim told Charlie. “We’re just north of Denver, I’m pretty sure. I stopped a few hours ago to sleep when I couldn’t drive anymore.”
“How long did I sleep?” Charlie asked, marveling at the idea that she was in Colorado.
“A long time” Tim answered. “All the way through Wyoming.”
Charlie let this sink in. They really were on an adventure. Colorado and Wyoming were places that she had heard of but they seemed so far away. Not like it was somewhere she could just drive to. She was relieved that her dad hadn’t seemed upset with her for going to the bathroom without asking and she was comforted by the warm air now coming out of the vents. The car heater was slowly getting hotter and the air was working to melt the thin layer of frost that covered most of the interior windows.
“I went to the bathroom” Charlie blurted out. “I really had to go”
“Good” her father replied as he engaged the car and began to drive slowly through the parking lot towards the highway entrance.
The next few hours were spent mostly in silence. The drive through Denver during rush hour slowed them down some but Charlie was excited to see what another big american city looked like. After Denver it was straight up into mountains that were much bigger than the ones they had seen earlier that morning. The sun had reached fully up above them now bringing with it a deep blue sky that contrasted perfectly with the white topped mountains that seemed to be surrounding them from every direction. Charlie couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. The richness of the blue skies were intense in a way that made Charlie wonder if the sky was actually a different blue here than it was back home.
Breakfast was a quick stop at a truck stop for a bathroom break and gas station donuts. After the stop the land around them flattened again some, although Charlie thought the many hills and distant mountains more interesting to look at than what she was used to in Minnesota. Charlie found herself imagining what it would be like to live here in the middle of Colorado. All around her she saw ranches with horses and imagined that she would have her own horse, a big black one named Pearl, with a long mane and a shimmering coat. She thought she would ride Pearl all by herself into the mountains where she could escape all the pressure and bullshit of her everyday life. Charlie looked over at her her dad and saw that he too was looking out the windows, appearing deep in thought as he did so. They had spoken very little to each other that morning and she wondered what he was thinking about as they drove.
“I wonder what it’s like to live here?” Charlie asked, breaking the long silence.
“I was just wondering that too” Tim said, looking over at her and smiling.
Charlie could see an anxious nervousness on her fathers face that made her nervous herself. Although she had only recently begun seeing him again, she had always thought of her father as someone who did not let the stress change him. Despite everything that had happened between them, including his recent drug use which led to this desperate road trip, Charlie had always trusted that he could handle anything, even if she couldn’t. The idea that maybe he couldn’t worried her.
“I would have a black horse named Pearl that I would ride everyday” Charlie shared.
“That sounds nice,” Tim said back. “Would you go to school?”
“I would ride Pearl to school and after school you would pick us up on your big white Stallion and we would ride home along one of these rivers we keep crossing over” Charlie said. “And when we got home we would build a warm fire and watch movies all night long.”
“Not until you finish your homework” Tim said, managing a more encouraging smile.
Charlie settled into her seat and tried to sleep. For all she could tell she may have even slept for a little while. As the miles piled up she found herself getting increasingly restless and bored. She thought about her friends back home and wondered if she would ever see them again. She wondered if she would ever see Donna again. Probably not, she convinced herself. And even if she did, Donna would be disappointed in her for running away like this. Charlie thought about her grandma and what she would think. She felt her heart beginning to beat hard in her chest as the thoughts of all the people she was letting down, and might never see again, raced through her mind. Charlie finally broke down into loud uncontrollable sobs as she thought about her mom and how none of this would be happening if she was still alive.
“What’s the matter” Tim asked her with a slight hint of panic in his voice, his eyes straining to accommodate both Charlie and the road.
“Everything is the matter!” Charlie screamed much louder than she expected herself to.
This sudden shift from sadness to anger scared her and she could see that it scared her father as well.
“This is so fucked up” she continued, still screaming through her sobs.
“What Charlie?” Tim asked again. “Where is this suddenly coming from?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know at all,” she screamed, “It’s all just fucked.”
Charlie could feel her whole body shaking as she fought the constant wave of emotions that were washing over her. She could hear her father breathing hard as he drove, all the while stealing concerned glances in her direction. Charlie was starting to feel out of control. It had come on suddenly and completely. She started to feel trapped in the car and had a strong sense that they could crash at any time. Suddenly Charlie was really freaking out.
“I don’t have my meds you know,” she said, remembering that they did not have any of her medication with them. “Maybe that’s what’s wrong.”
“So what happens when you don’t have your meds?” Tim asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, trying to get herself back under control. “I always have my meds. I freak out I guess.”
“I guess too.” Tim said. “So what do you think we should do?”
“If I knew what to do I would do it” Charlie screamed. “Just keep driving.”
Tim turned his eyes back to the road and did what she had said. Charlie tried to sit still, squirming in her seat with nowhere else to put the energy that was now coursing though her body. Now that it had occurred to her that she had missed her morning medication she was obsessing on how that fact was affecting her. Although Charlie knew that her meds had been increasingly reduced in the past few months, and that the few times she had missed a dose had not resulted in any major issues, she still was able to talk herself into believing this was the cause of her current problems. The meds had to be the problem. What else could it be.
For the next half an hour Charlie tried to calm herself down but nothing seemed to work. She focused on her breathing, she imagined herself in a calm place, she even tried pinching herself hoping that the pain would wake her up in some way that allowed her to settle. None of this worked. In fact the exact opposite seemed to be happening and she felt herself becoming more and more restless.
“Do you have to do that?” her father asked, snapping Charlie out of her thoughts.
“Do what?” Charlie asked.
“Bang your arm against the door like that,” Tim said. “It’s driving me nuts.”
Charlie stopped. She hadn’t even been aware she had banging her arm against anything. She tried after this to sit quietly still but the very act of trying to be still was to much for her to bear. They were in Utah now and the road seemed to just go on and on as if it had no end. The land was stretched in every direction by long red tinted mountains and what few clouds they could see were so high up it made sky seem much bigger than she had ever seen it. They had not seen any other cars in a long time. The overall effect was to give off the impression that she and her father were all alone in the middle of nowhere. They might as well have been on the moon as far as Charlie was concerned and she didn’t know how much more she could handle.
“Where the hell are we?” she asked desperately.
“Utah” Tim answered without emotion.
“How the fuck big is Utah then?” Charlie continued.
“I think that’s enough of the potty language,” Tim responded after a long silence.
This really made Charlie angry and she reacted by hitting her hand as hard as she could against the car window. She hit it so hard that she was both surprised and relieved when it didn’t break.
“What do you want me to do then?” Charlie yelled directly at her father. “Here I am in the middle of who even knows where without my meds and no place to even go. And you aren’t doing anything to help just sitting there starting out the window silently driving driving driving. I’m sorry, but I’m freaking out over here.”
At this Charlie saw here father looking back and forth between her and the road with a worried look on his face that unsettled her even more. She could see a single bead of sweat rolling down the side of his cheek and noticed that he was gripping the steering wheel very tight.
“Aaghh!!” Charlie screamed and hit the door again, this time safely below the window.
“What can I do Charlie?” Tim asked her. “I screwed everything up and now I’m in the same boat as you. Trust me, I’m kinda freaking out too.”
“Anything I guess,” Charlie said. “I can’t take feeling like this anymore.”
Tim was silent again, this time for even longer, until Charlie thought he was simply going to just stop talking to her. Finally he spoke and what he said caught her completely by surprise.
“Have you ever smoked pot?” her father asked.
“No” Charlie answered quickly, unsure of her father’s motives for asking her this.
“Do you want to?” Tim went on. “I mean, I can’t believe that I am asking you this, but sometimes it helps me when I’m freaking out.”
“I don’t know” Charlie said, feeling the bottom of her stomach drop out. “I don’t even know how to smoke pot.”
“Did you ever smoke a cigarette?” Tim asked.
Charlie had smoked cigarettes, several times, but she paused before answering this question. She had smoked a few times at school and once with her foster sister Leah but she had never been caught and wasn’t sure she wanted to admit it.
“It’s okay Charlie.” Tim said looking at her as he drove. “I don’t think I can offer you pot and then be mad at you for smoking cigarettes.”
“Well, it’s pretty much just like that.” Tim said. “Do you want to try?”
Charlie nodded again and her father turned his attention back to the road. She was nervous at the thought of smoking pot and especially nervous at the thought of smoking pot with her dad. She couldn’t believe this was happening but she also was relieved at the idea that, at the very least, she would soon feel different. Just then a large truck roared past them on the road going in the other direction. At this Charlie startled some and just as she caught her breath again her father pulled the car over into a little desolate rest area with a parking lot and a portable bathroom. As he parked the car Charlie saw that the mountains had grown bigger around them and the sky had returned to the intense blue she had seen earlier that morning. Around them was nothing except blue sky, white snow, and the jagged points of red mountains poking up and, for an instant, it occurred to Charlie that this was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life.
Once they stopped, her father wasted very little time and the actual experience of smoking pot with her father lasted only a few minutes. They stayed in the car and smoked with all of the windows open. Tim only let her smoke a very little bit and, as they drove away from the rest area, Charlie was not sure anything had even happened. Eventually she began to feel the difference. They drove in silence now for a long time, listening to a country station on the radio because it was the only one they could find. At first it felt to Charlie like her brain was swelling up inside her head, pushing against her skull in an attempt to escape. Charlie was relieved that this feeling did not last. After this she found herself content just looking out the window watching the landscape roll by. She was very aware of her father sitting next to her and tried at all costs to avoid looking at him or even in his direction. She wasn’t sure she felt better than she had before but she definitely felt different which proved to be just enough to help her go on.
Charlie was thirsty, had a bad taste in her mouth, and was enormously relieved when her dad wordlessly handed her a bottle of water that he seemed to pull out of nowhere. She was not sure quite what to think of the way she felt. It was as though her thoughts were speeding up and slowing down all at the same time. She found herself thinking about one thing and then, without warning, would realize she was thinking about something else. She tried to decide if she liked the feeling the pot had given her but she couldn’t decide for sure. It was like everything outside of her own thoughts had simply stopped existing. Charlie was not able to tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing. It just was.
As the day wore on Charlie found herself more and more tired from the events of the past day. Eventually she feel asleep. When she woke up they were stopped at a gas station and she was alone in the car. She could tell that the day was beginning to change into night by the way the sunlight hit only one side of the mountains that still surrounded them. Charlie saw her father inside waiting in line at the register and decided that she had better go in to use the bathroom. As Charlie walked in she met eyes with her father who showed her that he had sandwiches and snacks and she quickly nodded her approval before averting her eyes and darting into the bathroom.
The next few hours were uneventful. They continued to drive, mostly in silence, eating gas station sandwiches and cookies and trading occasional quips about the mountains or something from their past. Neither Charlie or her father mentioned the smoking pot, which was fine with Charlie who was still not sure what to think of the experience. She wondered what her dad thought about it and decided it was best left alone for now. Eventually the sun just drifted behind the mountains and darkness returned. Tim told her that he thought they were only a few hours from Las Vegas and that he was not sure how much more he could safely drive given how little sleep he had gotten the night before.
They decided to stop for the night at a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Charlie had never spent a night in a hotel before and found it to be a strange mix of excitement and sadness. There was something sad and desperate about the room they were given with it’s small television and strange smell. There was a bed for each of them and Charlie’s dad was asleep almost as soon as he lay down. Charlie flipped through the television stations, eventually stopping to watch a movie she had seen several times before about a girl her age who joins a traveling ice skating team and ends up winning a big competition in the end. The last thing Charlie remembered before she fell asleep was the part where the girl, who was learning a new spin, kept falling down and getting back up over and over again until she finally got it.
Robert opened his third beer of the night and sat back down on the couch. His day had started at 8:00 A.M. sharp with a phone call from South Field Academy informing him that Charlie Foxx had not returned from her visit with her dad the night before. That nobody had heard from either of them since they had left well before dinner time. Robert had accepted this news with an exasperated sigh, putting this together with the knowledge that he had told Tim about his failed drug test midway through this very visit. Robert could only imagine that Tim had freaked out and done something very stupid.
After hanging up from the phone call about Charlie, Robert had barely enough time to leave a message for his supervisor before rushing across town to an intake meeting for Minnie’s youngest son Darius. This meeting had been much more difficult than Robert anticipated due to Minnie’s sadness that another of her children was now struggling enough to qualify for county children’s mental health case management. Minnie was especially upset about this because both her and Robert had just found out the previous day that Minnie’s oldest son, Tre, was already having a difficult time at his new school. Because of Minnie’s mood and the distraction Robert felt from the situation with Charlie, they hadn’t even competed all of the intake paperwork before agreeing to meet again later in the week to finish and this uncompleted task hung over Robert’s head like a cloud, compounding the stress on what was already promising to be a very difficult day.
The rest of the workday had been filled with phone calls and meetings regarding the missing Charlie. Robert had long meetings about this with his supervisor, his supervisor’s supervisor, and more than one of the county’s many attorneys. He was asked over and over again the specific details regarding the case as well as any information he had stemming from the conversation he’d had the night before with Tim. A conversation, it turned out, that had been the last one anybody had had with either of them. In between these many discussions Tim spent his time writing out detailed notes about his last few contacts on the case and discussing the various possibilities with his co-workers and Maureen at South Field.
Robert couldn’t help imagining the worst. He was hopeful that Tim would turn up with his daughter at the front door of South Field embarrassed and apologetically confessing to an unapproved home visit or impromptu night at a hotel. Robert had left numerous voice messages on Tim’s cell phone and, despite his better judgement, had even stopped by his apartment in person to knock on the door. Still there was no word from Tim, and as the day had worn on Robert could feel himself becoming more and more discouraged by the whole situation. He couldn’t help himself from wondering if this was all a reaction to the news he had given Tim about the failed drug test and if he should have just waited to talk to Tim about it after his visit.
Robert felt especially bad for Charlie and what this might mean for her future. She had come so far and had been looking so good lately. She was on the least amount of medication she had been on in several years and by all accounts was ready to be discharged from South Field. Robert knew how badly Charlie wanted to go live with her dad and he himself had recently been very hopeful that this was not only possible but probable. Even with the news of the failed drug test Robert had still been hopeful that he would be able to reunite Charlie with her father and had spent a good portion of the day beating himself up for not making this point clearer to Tim.
Robert took a sip of his beer and stood up. Despite the late hour he was restless and well aware that sleep would not come easily this night. He paced around his apartment for a good five minutes before deciding to turn off his television and try one more time to call Tim’s cell phone.
“Tim, this is Robert.” he said bluntly into the phone. “I really hope you are getting my messages. If you are you know that I have been trying to call you all day. Maureen has been too. We’re worried Tim, about both you and Charlie. At this point I just want to know that you are ok. Whatever you have done Tim, it’s not too late. We can still make this work for you and Charlie. I know how much she means to you and and I know too how much you mean to her. Please call me back Tim, no matter what time it is, just… call me. Thanks. This is Robert.”
Robert hung up the phone and thought about the message he had just left. He knew he sounded desperate and that he had rambled some but he also knew that he had been sincere. He really did just want what was best for Charlie and he really did believe that what was best for her included Tim. Robert took another sip of his beer and sat back down on his couch. When he turned the TV back on he saw that a basketball game between UCLA and Oregon State was just beginning. Usually these west coast games were much too late for Robert but tonight he knew that he would watch the whole game and that he would finish the one last beer he still had in his refrigerator as well. Today had been the most stressful day Robert had ever faced as a social worker and he figured that even if he only got a few hours of sleep the next day had to be better.
The heavy curtains blocked out the bright Nevada sun allowing Tim and Charlie to sleep right up until the 10:00 A.M. check out time. Tim grabbed several donuts and two bananas from the complimentary breakfast as he checked out and, just like that, they were back on the road. Despite the long night of solid sleep Tim felt beaten down, like he’d given everything he had and come up short. He knew that he had really fucked up bad this time. Before stopping for the night he and Charlie had agreed not to tell anyone they smoked pot together and Tim trusted that she would keep the secret. He also knew that it was not fair for him to ask her to keep this kind of secret when she was only 15 years old. Given every mistake he had ever made as a parent, and there were plenty, this seemed to be the worst.
Tim looked over at Charlie in the car seat sitting next him and marveled at her resiliency. There she was sitting upright, her eyes squinting from the sunlight, calmly eating her banana as if nothing had happened. 15 was such a strange age to be, still very much a kid, but with the emerging characteristic of an adult. Charlie just seemed to keep moving forward no matter what happened and something about her right then reminded Tim of Sarah. This realization gave Tim a sudden internal jolt which brought with it a wave of sadness. Tim had never fully noticed the resemblance between Charlie and Sarah before and, as he felt his eyes begin to well up with tears, he was aware that this sadness was not for his loss of Sarah but for Charlie’s loss. He was crying on her behalf.
“I can’t wait to see the beach” Charlie said unprompted, her eyes still gazing out the window away from Tim.
It took Tim a full minute to gather himself enough to respond that he was looking forward to it too and that he expected they would be there in about five hours. He had decided long ago that they would go to Santa Monica because it was pretty much the only place in California he had heard of that he knew would have a beach. Charlie’s comment had worked to help him out of his funk as he now had something to focus on. Despite the overall stupidity of this whole thing, the failed drug test, the kidnapping of his own daughter and then smoking pot with her, he could still at least fulfill their one simple goal of swimming in the ocean. Neither of them had ever even seen the ocean and Tim was determined that this was one thing that they could experience together. One last adventure he thought. Even if Charlie was taken from him forever after this was all over they would at least have this memory. Tim felt his foot push down on the gas pedal as they broke away from the Las Vegas traffic. Now it was time to just sit back and drive.
For the next four hours they drove, mostly in silence, with one stop at the Walmart in Barstow, California to buy swimsuits and towels. Tim could sense Charlie’s excitement building as they got closer and closer to Los Angeles and he allowed her excitement to energize him. The sun continued to be bright in the sky and both of them seemed to be endlessly fascinated by the dried out desert hills that were following them. Tim was encouraged by how hot the sun was because he had been secretly worried it would be too cold to swim given that it was still winter, even in California.
At what Tim was hoping to be the last stop for gas before they got to the beach, they went over the map together and worked out a plan to get through the maze of highways that snaked through and around the Los Angeles area. Right about when they figured to be about an hour from Santa Monica the traffic suddenly picked up dramatically, several times even bringing them to a near stop. Charlie took over the navigation duties so that Tim could concentrate on diving. This worked surprisingly well given the newness of the experience for both of them. Tim had a brief panic when it occurred to him that they might not make the beach before sunset due to traffic but he relaxed some as he realized that their speed ebbed and flowed just like everything else and that they would probably still make it.
They almost missed an exit when Charlie saw the famous Hollywood sign and briefly lost focus about where they were going. Tim had been able to recover just in time before swerving wildly into a new lane as he found that he too was unable to avoid glancing up to catch a glimpse of the iconic giant letters. Despite the near misses and heavy traffic they were having fun. They turned the radio up loud and each had large smiles on their faces. Tim was pleased that he was able to completely let go of all the worry about what was going to happen and simply enjoy the moment with his daughter. Judging from the look on her face he thought Charlie was able to do this as well. This had truly become the epic adventure of their lives.
Somehow they made it to Santa Monica. It took them a good twenty minutes to find a place to park and another ten minutes to take turns changing into swimsuits in the backseat. The sun was starting to sink into the horizon but was still up high enough in the sky to be hot. Since Tim had never been to the ocean before he was immediately surprised by the strength of the smell. Charlie was bouncing around him like a much younger kid, apparently unable to contain her excitement. All around them there were people coming and going back and forth between the beach and the cars. Tim noticed that few of them were wearing swimsuits but saw just enough who were to convince him that they were going to be ok. He really couldn’t believe they had made it.
“Where should we go?” Charlie asked him when they finally made it out of the massive parking lot and onto the actual sand.
“I’m not sure” Tim answered, looking around in amazement at the number of people. “I guess we just walk around on the beach until we find a spot.”
Now that they were closer to the water the air, which was pungent with a salty, fishy smell that Tim could not quite place, seemed almost grainy as it blew across his face. Although Tim was usually overwhelmed by large crowds this whole situation was simply to intense for him to even process. There were so many people around him, creating so much activity, that it was almost like being alone. It was just him, Charlie, the sand, and the ocean. Everything else was a meaningless blur.
Tim finally found an open space close to the water for he and Charlie to sit. Charlie carefully laid out her towel and, taking off her shoes, sat down and buried her toes deep in the sand. Tim sat directly in the sand next to his daughter. Together they sat for a long time in silence, both just watching the waves roll in before eventually crashing on the shore and dissipating into nothing. The sound of the water was much louder than Tim imagined and it made it difficult for them to talk to each other without shouting.
“Well?” Tim finally asked, “are you ready to swim in the ocean?”
“I think so,” Charlie said nervously looking out at the water. “It’s exciting, but also kind of scary.”
“I think so too” Tim said. “We’ll go in together.”
Tim and Charlie held hands as they walked slowly into the ocean. The first few steps were cautious ones as the waves rose up around their feet and they both adjusted to the feeling of the ground giving way beneath them as the water then returned to the sea. The water was much colder than Tim expected and he smiled as Charlie gave out a little squeal when the water line rose past her knees. The waves continued to grow stronger as they walked further from shore until the water was high enough on Charlie that walking became difficult.
“Should we just go for it and jump in?” Tim asked.
At this Charlie looked up at her father and began to laugh. The look on her face, her wide smile and shining eyes, lit Tim up inside. It was the kind of happiness that can’t be faked and just seeing it in Charlie was enough to bring it to Tim.
“Well?” Tim asked again nodding towards the series of big waves that coming their way.
Charlie nodded before letting go of his hand and jumping into the oncoming waves without warning. Tim closed his eyes and jumped in himself. Once he was fully submerged underwater he could feel that he was at the mercy of the ocean. Everything else slipped away as the force of the waves pushed and pulled Tim in every direction. Briefly Tim had no control and when finally the water threw him forcefully to the ground it took him a few long seconds to find solid footing. Standing up Tim had a flash of panic as as scanned the immediate area for Charlie. The panic gave way to joy when he saw that she was still laughing where she stood comfortably about eight feet behind him.
They swam for the next forty-five minutes without a break. It was wonderful, it was exhausting, it was better than Tim had hoped it would be. By the time they climbed out of the water, tired and laughing, the sun was starting to sink further down in the sky and was illuminating what clouds there were into a rainbow of pink. Once again Tim held Charlie’s hand as they walked together back to their towels. Tim felt tears well up in his eyes and mix with the burning saltwater as he realized that they did not have a follow up plan. All of their energy over the past two days had been spent trying to get to California so they could swim in the ocean and now that they had done it there was nothing left to do besides face the reality of their situation.
“I love you Charlotte” Tim said simply, allowing the gravity of the moment to overcome him.
“I love you too dad” Charlie said back, before breaking free from his hand and running ahead to where their towels lay in the sand.
There were less people than before but the beach was still pretty crowded. Most of the swimmers were out of the water which was starting to take on a slight glow from the setting sun. Tim was trying to stay in the moment, trying to extend this amazing experience with Charlie but the anxiety and fear of everything else was coming up to the surface. He could feel his heart beat quickening as he scanned the beach unsure of exactly what he was looking for.
It felt to Tim like his heart stopped all at once when he spotted the police officer walking towards them. Tim had thought some about avoiding the police the past two days but had convinced himself that he and Charlie were just an everyday father and daughter on the road and that the local police in the states they were driving through would not be looking for them. His stomach tightened as the officer started getting closer and his first instinct was to grab Charlie and run. To just go into the crowds of California and disappear forever. Tim looked over at Charlie who was sitting on her towel, now wearing her clothing over her swimsuit, and looking out at the reddening sunset. She deserved better than than that. She deserved stability and opportunity, all the things he had failed to provide for her. Suddenly he knew exactly what he needed to do.
Tim took one last look at the sunset, one last look at his daughter, and ran after the police officer who had just walked right past Charlie without so much as looking at her.
“Excuse me sir,” Tim stated as he caught up to him.
The police officer turned around with an air of indifference and looked back at Tim expectantly without saying a word.
“Look, I’m not sure how to say this and I’m not sure what you’re going to do with it so I’ll just come out and say it. My name is Tim Brunell and I am from Minnesota. That’s my daughter over there,” he said motioning at Charlie, “she lives in a residential treatment home called South Field Academy.” Tim took a deep breath before continuing. “Basically I kidnapped her and now I want to turn myself in. She is not in any danger with me but she deserves better.”
The officer stepped forward, suddenly showing an interest in what Tim was saying. He looked over at Charlie and then back at Tim before speaking.
“What did you say your daughters name was?” he asked, a concerned look starting to build on his face.
“Her name is Charlotte Foxx” Tim said, “but everyone calls her Charlie.”
Carol Foxx, who often struggled to sleep through the night, walked down the hallway and looked in on her sleeping granddaughter. Charlie had been living with her for about six months since finally being discharged from South Field Academy. Carol could hardly believe that this was the same Charlie who had lived with her and her husband Dave for a brief time over two years earlier. Charlie had changed quite a bit since then, Carol thought to herself. “So have we for that matter” she added quietly out loud.
So much had changed. Dave Foxx, who’s drinking had become nearly unbearable since his retirement, was forced to quit drinking after suffering a minor stroke in November the previous year. The stroke, which at the time was very scary, turned out to be a good thing for the Foxx family. Dave, it seemed, now had a new lease on life and had chosen to use this as an opportunity to try to be happy for the first time in a very long time. Since at least before their youngest daughter, Sarah, was killed in a car accident.
One of the first things Dave had said once his health started coming back, and his sobriety was seeming like a permanent thing, was “let’s bring that poor granddaughter of ours back to us.” Surprised by this, Carol, who had been skeptical at first, quickly saw that this was the right thing to do. Charlie, she reasoned, had been through enough already and it was time to bring her back to her family once and for all.
Carol and Dave, who’d had two daughters of their own, had been through more than their fair share of grief. Carol knew that this was true at least. Their oldest daughter, Katie, was still lost in a sea of drug addiction and had not spoken to them for over ten years. Thankfully Katie did not have any children, at least not that they were aware of. Sarah, the younger daughter, the one who always had the most promise, took to the drink just like her father. In the end this had killed her when she and a friend wrapped their car around a tree one night while out driving drunk. Sarah did have a daughter, Charlotte, who everyone called her Charlie. Charlie was nine years old when Sarah was killed.
Charlie’s father, a nice enough but ineffectual man, did not have it in him to parent the poor motherless girl. He had tried for a while but his own drug problem had eventually gotten in his way and Charlie was taken from him. Her own bid to take Charlie in at that point had failed because of Dave’s drinking. Back then Carol had been angry about this but, looking back, and especially looking at the time in which she had first come to live with them, it had been the right thing. They were in no position to take in a child. Especially a child who had been through all that Charlie had already been through to that point in her life.
Charlie had gone to foster homes and then to a treatment center in the wake of this one attempt to take her in. It had been a disaster really. Charlie had been so in need of a family to put her back together, and there she and Dave had been simply trying to survive his heaviest drinking years. They tried to hide it, keep it in the basement, but of course that hadn’t worked. Charlie and Dave were at each others throats constantly with Carol stuck in the middle. When they found out that Charlie was cutting herself that was the end of it. There was nothing more they could do. Off Charlie went to the residential treatment center. Dave brought his drinking back upstairs and Carol was left alone with the shame she felt for letting down yet another daughter.
At the treatment center Charlie eventually made some nice progress and had been reintroduce to her long absent father. Carol, who had initially been against this reunion, was just starting to believe in Charlie’s father Tim when a failed drug test scared him into driving her across the county. After finally turning themselves in to the police on some random California beach, Charlie had been shipped right back to the treatment center and Tim had been shipped directly to jail.
Now, less than a year later, Tim was out on probation due to an especially forgiving judge, and Charlie lay sleeping in the very bedroom that had once been the girl’s own mother’s childhood room. Carol and Dave had wanted to hate Tim for letting Charlie down again but the truth was that he had actually gained their respect somewhat by fighting for her rather than continue to hide from the responsibility of being a parent the way he had initially done after Sarah’s death. Besides, Carol thought, who were they to judge anyone?
Tim was released from his four month prison sentence for kidnapping into a rehabilitation group home not far from the Foxx’s suburban home. As near as Carol could tell he was sincere in trying to make the changes he needed to get his life back in order. She and Dave had agreed to allow Tim to continue to be a part of Charlie’s life as long as he followed the rules of his probation, including passing randomized drug tests.
Carol walked further into Charlie’s bedroom to get a closer look at her in the dim light provided by the night light the girl insisted be kept on as she slept. It was uncanny how much she looked like her mother had looked at the same age. It was early Saturday morning and Carol knew that Dave would wake up soon and that they would brew coffee and eat a light breakfast together before finally waking Charlie in time for the weekly visit with her father. Carol locked her own breathing into the rhythm of her granddaughters steady breaths as she imagined the day ahead. It was the end of August when the days were starting to be noticeably shorter than the mid summer days that seemed to go on forever. Tim had planned for them all to go to the beach and Dave had surprised her by agreeing. She expected it to be hot and knew that Charlie, who had love to swim her whole life, would be pleased by this plan.
Carol leaned in and gently kissed her granddaughter on the cheek. This beautiful young girl, angelic in her sleep, and baring an uncanny resemblance to her own two daughters, was going to be the one that finally turned out happy. Carol was determined to make sure of it. The difference, she had come to believe, was that she herself was now happy and her husband was happy too. This had not always been true, in fact, it had rarely been true. But they were happy now and, if there was one thing she had learned during her years in this world, it was that happiness is contagious.