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A taxicab hit the slight body of Charlotte Anne Locke on the thirtieth of June. The momentum passed from the cab into the body, throwing it nearly ten feet away. Slamming on brakes and whirling steering wheels, drivers tried to swerve around the woman but few were successful.
In the end, the doctors claimed she had little chance. Her body was broken; her wounds would never heal and bones couldn’t be glued back together. The truth of the matter was: Charlotte was dead.
Not only did the family cry, but the sky cried along with it. Rain splattered to the ground in big, wet drops, thoroughly soaking poor Ned Charles Locke. He was standing outside the hospital at two thirty two in the morning, unaware of the rain. All that was on his mind was his sister, Charlotte.
Poor Ned. He always felt like a sad comparison to his older sister who was more athletic, more intelligent, and more popular than him. People fell to their hands and knees for Charlotte, but they hardly lifted a finger for Ned. All his life Ned had lived in the shadows of, as people said more often than not, “delightful, awe-inspiring, radiant” sister.
“You got family in there?” a man asked. Ned looked to his right and saw a man smoking a cigarette. He was leaning against a pillar supporting the awning, looking particularly dry, though extremely tired. Knitting his brows together, Ned joined him under the canopy.
“Yeah,” Ned said, nodding. “You?”
“The wife just had a baby.” The man shook his head, chuckling under his breath. “It’s not mine.”
“I knew,” the man said, laughing at Ned’s expression. “I love her though, and she says she loves me. Who knows though? Who really ever knows?” The man threw the cigarette to the ground, crushing it under his heel. “You going inside?”
Ned shook his head. No. He couldn’t. Almost his entire family was in there, crying over his sister. Ugh, Charlotte. No, he couldn’t go back inside. Not yet. Again, Ned shook his head.
The man shrugged. “See you around.”
Ned lifted his hand in farewell as the man walked back into the building. Ned stared at the rain once more, wondering what was going to happen next.
Days went by and Ned still couldn’t answer this question. Instead of the hospital, he was now at the church. Charlotte’s funeral.
There were far too many of “them.” They, the friends, crammed into the church along with the family, leaving hardly any breathing room. They ran up to Ned, the women giving him hugs that sucked the air out of him and the men shaking his hand so hard, it was numb. Ned didn’t say anything to any of them.
Charlotte’s body was laid at the front of the church, dressed in her best. She looked great, as usual. Ned’s stomach was on fire as he stared at her.
“Bye,” he muttered, walking away. He didn’t even look over his shoulder. As far as he was concerned, she was gone. Never coming back.
The ceremony for Charlotte was anything but beautiful for Ned: too many tears, too many flowers, and far too many memories of Charlotte. Ned survived, however, and stayed in the pew while everyone empty out of the church.
“Son!” Ned glanced over his shoulder as he left the pew and saw his parents running at him, tears streaming down theirs faces and tissues scrunched into balls in their hands. Ned turned back to face the front of the church to hide his face.
Dear old Mom opened her arms wide, preparing to give Ned a very unsanitary huge, but Ned read the warning signs and pushed her away before it was too late.
“Yeah, Mom, no touchie,” Ned said, shaking his head and shrugging at the devastated looking woman as he waved his index fingers under her nose. “Germs and I, we had a go, but it all ended in tears and heartbreak.”
“Oh, Ned,” his mother bawled, completely ignoring his little speech. “She’s gone. Our darling daughter is gone.”
“She’s not my daughter,” Ned muttered under his breath, but said no more than that as his mother grabbed him in her arms against his wishes. His father stood behind them, nodding along with the music that the old organ in the front of the church was belting out.
A few minutes later, Ned managed to glance at his watch over his mother’s shoulder. He cleared his throat, and slowly she let him go. “Time to go to the graveside.”
They left the church and it was still raining. Since Charlotte had died, it seemed as though it had never stopped. Ned always thought bitterly that it was bad enough that the people were crying, why did the sky have to too?
However, as Charlotte’s casket was slowly being lowered into her grave with the tomb marked “Devoted Daughter and Sister. Never to be forgotten,” the rain slowed and, as the last rose was thrown into the grave, stopped all together. Ned stared up at the sky and wondered what it was playing it.
The crowds of “them” moved towards their cars, shaking off their soggy umbrellas and wiping down their tear-drenched faces. Ned didn’t move towards his car, though. He stayed, watching the tombstone. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but he knew that something had to happen. His sister was dead! It wasn’t just going to end like that. Something had to happen.
He waited five hours. For five hours he stood, staring at the tomb, waiting for a sign, a signal, something. But nothing came. The clouds didn’t form any apparent shapes and birds didn’t burst into song. No angels descended upon him from Heaven nor did flowers suddenly seem to bloom. The gravedigger did come by about an hour in and offer him a smoke, though. Ned politely refused.
Then he went home to his empty apartment. What else was he to do? A sign wasn’t coming. So, Ned laid in the dark on his bed, watching the ceiling fan spin round and round, wondering what was going to happen next.
He didn’t have the answer to that question even when he was at work a week later, typing away at his computer only halfheartedly. He had always been a good worker, though never good enough to stand out to his boss. He was just one of the hundred faces that were underneath Mr. James Crowley, VP of Vicks and Vick.
That day, however, he appeared to stand out to Mr. Crowley. James approached Ned’s cubicle and, at first, Ned didn’t comprehend what was happening. James walked by daily on his way to his office and Ned thought that was just what was happening, but he was wrong.
James cleared his throat as he stood in the opening of the cubicle. Slowly, Ned turned, and realized something. This was the sign! This was the sign that he had been waiting to happen.
“Um, Ned?” Mr. Crowley said, clearing his throat once more.
“Yes, sir?” asked Ned, butterflies in his stomach. Was it a promotion? It had to be a promotion! He’d heard from Jan in accounting that someone higher up had quit, but he never even hoped he’d get the position.
“Ned,” Mr. Crowley said again. He looked over his shoulder and Ned knew it had to be the promotion. Mr. Crowley just didn’t want anyone else to hear about it. “We’ve got to talk.”
Ned stared at Mr. Crowley with a vague expression so he would looked surprised when Mr. Crowley said, “Ned, I’m giving you a promotion.” Poor, poor Ned. He just didn’t have the luck of Charlotte.
“Ned, we’re going to have to let you go,” Mr. Crowley said. He looked over his shoulder once again. Ned’s eyes went wide, his mask of vagueness fading away to a genuine picture of distress.
Next thing he knew, he was walking down the crowded streets of Philadelphia, tourists pushing and shoving him as they rushed by, asking each other, “Wasn’t the Liberty Bell great?” and “Want to see the congress building next?” and, even, by a man who had accidentally lost his credit card to his wife, “What’s going to happen next?”
“What is going to happen next?” Ned asked them. He looked up to the sky, and screamed, “What is going to happen next?”
He thought about this all day, when he went to the showing of Star Wars at one of those small, one-screen theaters to get his mind off things, and when he went to Best Buy, hoping to find a job, and even when he stopped at his favorite coffee shop, the Steaming Mug.
The Steaming Mug. It didn’t have particularly good coffee or especially sweet muffins and cakes, but it had Madeline. Beautiful, stunning Madeline.
As long as he could remember, Madeline had worked part-time at the Steaming Mug to build a college fund for her son, Nicolas, whose father had died in combat and been giving a purple star. Of course, he hadn’t found out any of this by himself. He had told Charlotte about his infatuation with Madeline and Charlotte had talked to her, but only after promising she wouldn’t mention Ned at all.
Ned, holding his head high, walked up to the counter and said, “Hello.”
“Good afternoon, sir,” Madeline said, wiping her forehead with the back of her arm. “Be with you in a second.” She rang a bell sitting on the counter and said, “Grande chocolate-chip frappuccio without whipped cream.”
A man walked over, grabbed the coffee, and was gone, though Ned hardly noticed him. He had eyes only for Madeline.
“Can I help you?” she asked, giving Ned a smile.
“How’s your son?” asked Ned without thinking.
“Excuse me?” asked Madeline, suspicion clouding her bright eyes. “How do you know I have a son?” Ned realized that he had never actually talked to Madeline before and immediately regretted his words.
“Do you want to go out sometime?” asked Ned.
“Sorry, I’m busy,” came the blunt response. “Are you going to order anything?”
“Busy? You can’t always be busy!” Ned objected, ignoring her last question.
“I’m too busy for men I don’t know, but seem to know me,” Madeline said. “If you come near my son, I’ll call the police.” She rang the bell once more. Ned dejectedly lowered his head and realized he had ruined it. He had ruined everything.
He left the shop and couldn’t help but wondering, was this the way it was supposed to be? Charlotte was gone! Life should be better! Yet, it was worse. He raised his eyes to the sky once more and asked, “What’s going to happen next?”