Charles couldn’t believe he had slept through dinner again; he was going to have to beg Phil or one of the Korean kids for ramen, and why should they give him anything? If the ladder had been in its hiding spot under the patio of the on-campus daycare, he could have gotten onto the roof of the gym and across it to the admin building to see if he could find anything to eat in the small kitchen there, but without the ladder he couldn’t get onto the roof, unless he had Andrew to boost him up. Andrew must have moved it while Charles was suspended, or else it got confiscated. That’s okay, they’d fished it out of a dumpster anyway; they found good stuff in the dumpster by the maintenance building all the time, but he sure wasn’t going to find dinner there.
Andrew was probably getting stoned in the woods with his roommates—sophomores, like him; Charles was the only freshman they hung out with—and the two seniors who bought the vodka that got Charles suspended in the first place. The dean had driven Charles to the hospital that night and the next day she had asked him who got the liquor and Charles stared at the spots of puke on his Vans and said enough that made the seniors think he’d ratted them out, even though they didn’t end up proving anything. He didn’t want to lie, but he’d tried not to say much either. They didn’t get that.
So he missed almost a month of his freshman year; on weekdays he had gone with his mother to pick up her boyfriend’s sons from elementary school in the car she bought with the settlement from her accident; he babysat them for cash, he read Stephen King novels and fought with his mother and hung out with his friends who went to public school back in Wrentham, an hour from the boarding school outside of Boston.
But he was back on campus now and it was March and the days were still short. Charles thought about trying to find Andrew in the woods around the dorm, but didn’t feel like going in alone. He checked to see if the building with the cafeteria in it was still unlocked and it was; maybe he could at least grab some rolls or something even though the dinner was done, but the door to the dining hall itself was locked.
Charles turned around and noticed Charlotte sitting on one of the couches outside the bathrooms, reading a book held close to her face in the dim track lighting. Charles flipped each of the three light-switches next to the cafeteria door until the overhead fluorescents for the small lounge came on and Charlotte looked up.
“The overhead light here is awful,” she said.
“Don’t you want to see? And aren’t you a day student?”
“I could see fine,” she said. He looked at her book, an orange paperback called Orlando that looked like it was from the seventies.
“Is that good?” Charles asked.
“It’s my third time reading it.”
“Cool,” Charles nodded. “I’ve been reading this guy named James Joyce recently. Are you here like for a rehearsal or something?” He had only had one class with Charlotte, but he was pretty sure she was into theatre.
“I missed the bus,” Charlotte said.
“I think I took the bus with you once. You live in Cambridge, right?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“I was going to visit my grandmother. She lives in Brookline, do you know where that is?”
“Well I got lost. Harvard Square is cool though. I shoplifted some books from a store there.”
“You stole them?”
“It was easy. This jacket, it has, see…” Charles unzipped his olive green jacket and showed her the slit in the lining. “You can fit pretty much anything in here without being able to tell.”
“The wool is itchy though. Are your parents coming to pick you up or something?”
“Yeah, but they can’t be here until eight.”
“That’s when I have to be back in the dorm, too,” Charles said.
“Do you like it there?”
Charles thought about his room, where it felt like the sun was always setting and the campus, all of it, was the horizon it was setting behind.
“It’s fine,” he said. “There are a lot of rules but only a couple of people who try to enforce them. One of the dorm parents is cool. If you want to walk around or something we can.”
“I forgot my jacket,” Charlotte said.
“Oh, man, that was stupid. It’s like 20 degrees out. But it’s so awful in here anyway. We can walk back to my dorm and I can grab you a jacket, then we can walk around.”
“Where’s there to walk to?” Charlotte asked.
“I told you,” Charles said, “around.”
“People didn’t think you were going to come back,” Charlotte said.
“Were you in the assembly when they came in to get me?”
“I didn’t even have alcohol poisoning, they just thought I did.”
“Oh, I heard it was for something else,” Charlotte said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, what?” Charles said, stopping on the road up from the dorm. Charlotte was wearing the leather jacket he’d gotten from his mother’s boyfriend. It was warm but he’d messed up the back trying to sew a Misfits patch on.
“I heard it was for peeing in the open window of the dean’s car.”
“What? That wasn’t me. That’s disgusting. Who told you that?”
“I don’t remember. Well, I’m glad you didn’t do that. I wouldn’t want to talk to you if you did.”
“You were already talking to me,” he pointed out.
“It didn’t seem like something you would have done.”
“I wouldn’t,” Charles said. “Man, I can’t believe I slept through dinner. Did you get dinner here?”
“I didn’t know if I was allowed to.”
“You must be starving too. We can try to find some food, somewhere.”
“I don’t have money to buy anything,” Charlotte said.
“No,” Charles agreed, “me neither. We’ll figure something out though. You up for taking a walk through the woods?”
“In the dark? No. I don’t even know you that well.”
“No, look, there’s the path that goes by the rope course behind the English building—”
“There’s a rope course here?”
“Yeah, no one ever uses it for some reason but it’s cool. There’s like a tree fort thing but it’s impossible to find in the dark.”
“Cool,” Charlotte said.
“Yeah. But the path goes right through to the industrial park behind the school and we can walk around there.”
“Just stuff to explore. And we can get free samples at the Costco there, or maybe get someone to buy us something. There are a lot of options. Here.” Charles reached into the lining of his jacket and pulled out a heavy Maglight.
“I told you, you can hold a lot in here without being able to tell. We have another one that we made into a bong. That’s not in my jacket though.”
“Andrew and me. Andrew Stilles.”
“I don’t think I know him.”
“He’s a sophomore. I mostly hang out with sophomores. Come on, we can cut up this hill and it’s like three minutes through the woods.”
He couldn’t find the path right away, even though he’d walked on it a million times, and usually stoned too. It was actually Charlotte who found it.
“Is this it?”
“No,” Charles said. “Yes. Yeah. I knew we were near it.” There was a lamp-post by the front of the English building, but the path was around the back, and there weren’t any other lights until you found the slope down into the back part of the parking lot of some factory in the industrial park; just trees, tall enough to hide the sky. Charles scrutinized the darkness for the bobbing glow of cigarettes, but he couldn’t see any.
“Man, I wish I had a cigarette,” he said.
“Not really, unless people have cigarettes.”
“So you wish you were with someone who had cigarettes,” Charlotte said.
“I’ve never smoked one.”
“I’m impressed you haven’t tripped on any of these rocks,” Charles said. He thought about offering to let her hold the flashlight, but he wasn’t sure how she’d interpret that. “Is my jacket warm enough?”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “It’s like this one my father gave me.”
“Oh,” Charles said. “I don’t have a father. My mother has a boyfriend but all of his clothing is weird colors.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in anything but black,” she said.
“It’s my favorite color.”
“You must like these woods then. It’s pitch-black.”
“It’s not that dark,” Charles said.
“There was another time I stayed late and I think I saw you coming out of the art building even though it was closed. You were with another person too, with long hair.”
“Yeah, I like art.”
“The building was dark.”
“Oh, yeah, you can find a way into most of the buildings here after they’ve closed. There’s a tunnel connecting the admin building to the gym, but I haven’t found it yet.”
“That’s just a rumor.”
“How do you know?” Charles asked.
“My parents went here and they said it was a rumor then.”
“I can’t imagine anyone who goes here being a parent.”
“They aren’t very good,” Charlotte said, then laughed quickly. “They’re okay, they’re just distracted.”
“Yeah. Right before I came here my mother bought this big new TV and tried to act like it was for me, even though I’m not living there.” Charles stopped; he could see the streetlight of the parking lot through the trees.
“Is this it?”
“Yeah. Here, let me lift the fence up here for you, you can squeeze under. I don’t want you to get your pants dirty, so I can put my jacket down if you want.”
“I can fit without touching the ground I think,” Charlotte said, swinging under the curled up fence as he pulled it up. Charles followed behind her. There was a worn path down the steep slope into the parking lot. He offered her his hand, but she didn’t notice and trotted down to the lot.
“I thought you were clumsy,” Charles said, “but you did that really well.”
“Why did you think I’m clumsy?”
“I saw you trip once,” he said. She blushed and looked at him, then back at the trees.
“Everybody trips sometimes,” she said. Then, quietly, “You walk funny.”
“You don’t move your arms and you barely bend your knees,” Charlotte said. “And you walk so quickly.”
“I don’t like to waste time,” Charles said. “I got on the roof of this building once, you see that ladder there with the guard thing over it? We cut the lock on it. There’s a thicker one now.”
“What did you do up there?”
“Just looked around. There was a skylight but you couldn’t see through the glass. I walked across it.”
“How did you know it wouldn’t break? That’s a big building, you probably would have hurt yourself.”
“You can just tell by looking at things usually,” Charles said. “Anyway, I’m never going to die.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just because other people die doesn’t mean I have to. Like, that doesn’t prove anything. The same things don’t happen to everyone. Do you believe that you’re going to die?”
“I don’t like to think about it,” Charlotte said.
“You should think about it. The more you think about death, the more you’ll realize it doesn’t have to happen.”
“It sounds like you think about it because you’re scared of it,” Charlotte said. “That’s probably why you wear so many shirts with skulls on them too.”
“That’s just what I like.”
“Where are we going?” Charlotte asked.
“There’s this parking garage,” Charles said. “I threw a shopping cart off the top once, but we can just sit up there.”
“Do you really think you’re going to live forever?”
“It’s no stupider than believing in Heaven,” Charles said. “No offense. I think you’re religious, right?”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said.
“You’re smart though, so I don’t get why you’d believe that.”
“You’re being mean,” Charlotte said.
“Sorry,” Charles said. “I was saying you’re smart. Isn’t that good?”
“But you were also saying what I believe is stupid.”
“Well,” Charles said, then paused. “I’m sorry. You can believe whatever you want. Maybe you can tell me more about it. I wrote my admission essay about how religion is evil, but my mother said I couldn’t submit that, so I wrote one about Jim Morrison instead.”
“From The Doors. What kind of music do you like?”
“Yeah. You don’t wear tee-shirts with the bands you like on them, so it’s hard to tell.”
“Not everyone does that,” Charlotte said.
“I’m not saying you have to,” Charles said. “I’m just saying you don’t, so I don’t know.”
“I like Lou Reed. And a lot of world music but you wouldn’t like it.”
“Wait,” Charles said, “you like Lou Reed? From The Velvet Underground? They’re like my favorite.”
“That’s cool,” Charlotte said. “Your smile is funny. Not in a bad way, I just don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile before.”
“It’s just discipline,” Charles said.
“What’s so bad about smiling?” Charlotte asked.
Charles imagined the way his father was smiling in the school photo his mother still had in one of the photo albums in the living room.
“I just don’t like people to know how I feel all the time,” he said. “It’s important to be in control.”
None of the buildings in the winding industrial park seemed to have more than a few lights on, in the lobbies or lingering in single windows on the upper stories. From the top of the parking garage it looked like the horizon trying to keep its eyes open, but nodding off.
“You know this is Waltham? The school is right on the line between towns. So my dorm is in Waltham too, even though the rest of the school is in Weston. You see that office building there? You can see it from the highway too. I went inside it once.”
“It seems like you explore a lot,” Charlotte said. He could see her breath when she talked and he wished he could see the stars, but it was overcast, hard even to discern the clouds from the sky.
“I like to explore,” Charles said. “I like to find the way things are connected. Like, that office building, it’s not just a box closed off from the world. The world is in there too. You know? And if I can go in there, then there’s a path connecting it.”
“Connecting it to what?”
“I don’t know,” Charles said. “To wherever I go next. You know I want to be a writer. I bet you could be a good writer too.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’re smart. You get what I’m talking about.”
“You said I’m smart before, too” Charlotte said.
“Well, you are. I won’t say it again, if you don’t like it, for some reason.”
“I’m just taking a walk with you,” Charlotte said.
“I know. Why? What did I do?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to make sure you knew this was just a walk.”
“I like to walk,” Charles said. “It’s cool to show someone different this stuff, too. I can’t talk to Andrew about stuff like this. He does it with me, but we don’t talk about it.”
“He’s not smart?” Charlotte said and smiled.
“He’s smart. His father’s a lawyer. But his mother’s a total trophy wife. He just doesn’t like to talk.”
“Like how you don’t like to smile.”
“Yeah, kind of, I think,” Charles said. “There’s this song my grandmother likes, she’s a really good artist, she lives in Brookline in this big mansion that looks like a castle. But this song is called, like, ‘Sliding Down the Razorblade of Life’ or something.”
“I think I actually know that song,” Charlotte said. “It’s a joke song, right?”
“I haven’t actually heard it,” Charles said. “But I think so, yeah. But it’s a cool phrase and I was thinking, like, if you’re sliding down the razor of life or whatever, you should get to know your fellow commuters.”
“That’s funny,” Charlotte said.
“Is it?” Charles asked, because he didn’t know what else to say when he smiled.
“I always wondered what you and Andrew talked about,” Charlotte said.
“Not, like, all the time, but I mean when I saw you together. Like coming out of the art building together. That was him, right?”
“Probably. Sometimes I go alone, too. It’s such a small school but I think a lot of people don’t know who he is.”
“He walks fast, like you do.”
“He doesn’t like to waste time. He takes shortcuts when he can. I think he and I know the campus better than just about anyone. I like to go on the roof of the gym the most, but it’s kind of dangerous.”
“I bet you can see a lot from up there.”
“Yeah, but you have to get really close to the edge,” Charles said.
“There’s an UNO up the road that way, but since we don’t have any money that’s no use. The Costco is the other way but they might not let us in because we aren’t members.”
“I think they let everyone in,” Charlotte said.
“One time they told me I couldn’t go in because I wasn’t a member. I told them my father was, but they didn’t believe me. I hate when people think I’m lying. So we were going to pull the fire alarm but the store was closing anyway so we decided not to.”
“Were you lying?”
“I don’t lie,” Charles said.
“What if you got caught in one of the buildings you snuck into? What would you say?”
“I’d just be quiet. Or say I’m the son of someone who works there.”
“I visited Andrew in Georgia once and we went to this skate-park and the waiver had to be signed by a parent, so Andrew’s father said he was my father and signed it. And he’s a lawyer, so I think that’s okay. If it’s to get out of a situation like that. But I wouldn’t lie to you or someone I care about. You can trust me.”
“I bet we can get into Costco without having to say anything,” Charlotte said. “You said they have free samples, right?”
“But don’t steal anything while I’m with you, okay?”
“Okay, fine,” Charles said. “Man, they have free peanuts at UNO, if we could just get enough money to buy a soda. But we’ll find good stuff at Costco.”
“Punk’s kind of stupid. I mean, it’s all the same thing,” Charles said, shrugging. “And, like, it doesn’t talk about anything serious.”
“Aren’t you friends with Will, with all the patches? He looks like a punk.”
“I was, but…” Charles remembered approaching Will the first day of school, because Will’s bright pink mohawk made him the only person in the freshman orientation who didn’t weird Charles out; the rest of the students didn’t look that different than the kids Charles had struggled through public junior high school with. He remembered the first few months of freshman year, spending every weekend that he didn’t go home at Will’s house, just five minutes away from the school and with a whole third floor just for his bedroom where they could stay up late watching horror movies they rented in the center of town, if they were willing to carry the small TV up from Will’s parents’ bedroom. He remembered pogoing to Operation Ivy and jerking off to the pictures of Debbie Harry in a book Will had.
He thought about Andrew, nodding along seriously to Pantera and Pink Floyd, his greasy hair usually hiding eyes that seemed like they were covered up even when they were looking right at you. Charles tried to hang out with Will and Andrew at the same time a couple of times, but started to avoid Will after Andrew said he thought he was weird. Once since being back Charles skipped class with Andrew and saw Will on Moody Street, and felt angry because Will didn’t have to walk like they did, didn’t have to skip class to have time to get to the thrift store before it closed, because he was hanging out with the junior year punks who could drive their cars to school and leave campus at lunch.
“I prefer music that’s intellectual and takes some talent,” Charles said. They had done about ten passes by the lady handing out cheese samples and now they were sitting in a display hot-tub propped up on its side. “Same with books. I don’t want to waste my time.”
“I think that’s the fourth time you’ve used that phrase,” Charlotte said. “You must think about time a lot.”
“I don’t know,” Charles said. “It’s like, being here… Not here in this store, I mean at the school, living in the dorm… I just think about time a lot I guess, yeah.”
“It’s okay,” Charlotte said.
“I know,” he said.
An old man in a Costco vest stopped in front of them and looked down. Here it comes, Charles thought, and got ready to stand up. But instead the old guy smiled.
“Be careful you don’t get wet, you two,” he said, and kept walking down the aisle, pushing a cart full of empty boxes.
“I’d hate to be that guy,” Charles said.
“I don’t know. Working here, saying stupid stuff like that to people. Having to smile at strangers.”
“He seemed fine to me,” she said.
“I just don’t want to wake up and be him someday.”
“Do you think that’s what happens?”
“I think that happens to a lot of people,” Charles said. “They get jobs because they don’t know better.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“There are lots of things,” Charles said, and shrugged.
“That’s why you don’t want to waste time? So you don’t end up like that?”
“It’s just a matter of discipline,” Charles said.
“I get all A’s in my classes, does that count?” Charlotte asked.
“I don’t know,” Charles said. “I don’t get the point of studying things you don’t like. I’m a fully-formed person, I know what I like and what I don’t. I’m not going to wake up one day and care about World War II.”
“But you’re worried about waking up one day as an old man,” Charlotte said.
“You don’t have to understand,” Charles said. “And I know you get all A’s, because we had a class together.”
“Food & Culture, I think.”
“Yeah. You were a total bitch, that’s how I knew you must get straight A’s.”
“What?” Charlotte stood up quickly. She was blushing.
“What, it’s not a bad thing, I just meant I could tell you were so serious—”
“I can’t believe you called me that.”
“Wait, are you crying? I didn’t mean—”
Charlotte started to walk away, then came back and threw Charles’s jacket at him and stormed off.
“Wait,” Charles said, hopping up, “you’ll be cold. And you’ll get lost without me.”
But she got around the corner ahead of him and by the time he turned he couldn’t see her in the crowd of people, all buying way too much of stuff they probably didn’t need anyway.
“Shit,” Charles muttered. He was walking back the way they’d come and couldn’t see Charlotte ahead of him, but he took a moment to appreciate the ease with which he’d sworn to himself, like it was the most natural thing in the world. But it was swearing that had gotten him in trouble just now. Some people were sensitive about language, but he said bitch all the time at home and his mother didn’t care. He’d even called one of the dorm parents a bitch once and she hadn’t said anything, just had her husband talk to him later, and that was nothing. Anyone could listen to someone talk and nod at the right times. But, shit, Charles had fucked up this time; for some reason, Charlotte really cared.
Charles stopped by the garage they’d gone up before, but couldn’t see her around there and there was no reason she’d go back up to the top, unless she was trying to get a view of how to get back. And that was unlikely because all you could see from up there were stupid office buildings full of boring people who didn’t understand anything about how to get anywhere. And most of them had gone home by now anyway, to their boring wives or whatever. Charles was thinking he should just keep going back the way he came and hope for the best, because there wasn’t anything else he could do. She probably remembered the place where they’d turned and the entrance to the woods was marked by a street light right over it, which made it seem like an official path, even though the first time someone showed Charles the route it was all grown over, like they were just discovering it. One of the sophomores, Ian probably, in that condescending monotone you couldn’t get a rise out of, had told him that was just what happened every summer because no one walked on it then.
But Charlotte wasn’t there when Charles got to the spot in the fence they’d crawled under, and while he was thinking about if he should go back toward Costco or through the woods, she threw a rock at his back, not hard, but it hit the ground next to him anyway.
He turned around and she was sitting on the edge of the loading dock with the ladder over it, the one he’d climbed that time. He regretted telling her about that, for some reason. He could see that she’d been crying.
“Are you going to hit me?” he asked, noticing a few rocks piled next to her. She was shaking in her long-sleeve tee-shirt. “Do you want the jacket back?”
Charlotte didn’t say anything.
“I don’t really know what I did,” Charles said, moving toward her. “People use that word all the time.”
“Not to me,” she said.
“Look, I’m sorry if you’re not used to swearing. I swear a lot. You probably shouldn’t talk to me if you have a problem with it.”
“I don’t like being sworn at,” Charlotte said.
“If you try to change the way you talk when you’re talking to different people, that’s lying. I have to be myself no matter who I’m talking to.”
“Then you’re just not a good person,” Charlotte said. He could tell it was supposed to hurt him, but the way he imagined a ‘good person’, it was just like that guy who worked at Costco, smiling at nothing and doing nothing.
“I get to decide if I’m good or not,” Charles said.
“Can you even say sorry?”
“Not without understanding what I did wrong,” he said. “Just take the jacket at least. You’ll probably die without it.”
“I’m fine,” she said, but she took the jacket and put it on when he placed it next to her.
“Okay, I’m sorry that my words hurt you. I wouldn’t say sorry if I didn’t mean it, and I’m sorry.”
“So you get why it’s wrong,” Charlotte said. It wasn’t a question.
“It’s a word that bothers some people.”
“My parents are going to be here so I need to get back,” Charlotte said.
“Oh, crap, that means I need to get back to my dorm too. If I’m late again they’ll put me on another warning.”
“Why don’t you just follow the rules?” Charlotte said, hopping off the dock and starting up the slope.
“I make my own rules,” Charles said, following behind her.
“That’s a cliché,” Charlotte said.
“Maybe, but I mean it.”
“Is one of your rules really that you don’t change the way you talk for anybody? Would you call your grandmother that word?”
“If she did something bitchy,” Charles said quickly, then thought about it. “But that’s different.”
“You’re joking, right?” Charlotte said.
“Yeah,” Charles said as they stepped into the woods. It was the first thing he’d said to her that he didn’t believe while he was saying it. Because he wasn’t joking; he knew he shouldn’t ever say that to his grandmother, but he would, if she made him angry enough.
“I forgive you,” Charlotte said. “If you care.”
“I care,” he said. “It’s weird, we aren’t even friends, but we took this walk together.”
“That’s rude,” Charlotte said.
“I mean, we could be friends,” he said, “but we’ve never hung out before. But showing you this walk is the closest to feeling like taking someone to my house and showing them around since I’ve been here.”
“You’ve shown people your dorm, probably,” Charlotte said.
“This is different,” Charles said. “This is the world. What did I say that convinced you to walk with me?”
“I needed to get back and didn’t want to go through the woods by myself.”
“I mean originally.”
“You didn’t convince me,” Charlotte said. “I just decided.”
Charles could see the English building in the distance already, but he didn’t want to come out of the darkness yet.
“You can wear that jacket home if you want.”
“My parents would flip out if they saw me in it.”
“Oh,” Charles said. “What are you going to tell them you did while you waited?”
“I’ll tell them I read and walked around.”
“That’s true,” Charles said.
“I won’t lie to them,” she said. “I just won’t mention you.”
On the way back to the dorm, Charles caught Andrew coming out of the other woods, the ones that lead across campus to the athletic fields. He was by himself.
“I was looking for you earlier,” Charles said.
“I was around,” Andrew shrugged.
“I ended up taking a walk,” Charles said.
Andrew didn’t say anything.
“I went to the garage and to Costco.”
“Did you get anything?”
“No, just samples. I didn’t have any money.”
“I mean did you get anything,” Andrew said.
“Oh,” Charles said, “no.”
“You were with a girl,” Andrew said.
“She seems weird,” Andrew said.
What could Charles say to that? He could defend Charlotte and Andrew would provoke him, or he could try to make fun of her and he’d feel bad, like he was betraying someone.
“I think I figured out a way to get into the office building with the big antenna on top,” Charles said instead, and they walked up to the dorm together; they were just a few minutes late.
Richard Charles Schaefer is a Massachusetts native living in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his wife, two children, and two cats. He recently finished his first novel and is working on a collection of short stories. His work appears in Issue 36 of Lowestoft Chronicle. Find him on Instagram @counterfeitchocolatecoin
PHOTO credit: Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. Recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.