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Two Floors Down
Cold. Strange. Full scholarship. Geeky, I guess. Great singer, never spoken to her, though. Fantastic at English, History too. She aces all the tests. No, I’ve never spoken to her. Well, she’s just weird, y’know?
That’s how they see her. That’s how they talk about her, not to her. They can’t figure her out, so they just look at the floor when she passes, part around her and ignore her. Teenagers can be so very heartless.
Charlotte? Yeah, sure, they know her. Well, of her. She’s that quiet, skinny redhead in their GCSE classes. Did you know, she’s taking IB’s too? Before she’s even out of secondary school! No wonder she’s so odd, the books have driven her mad. They laugh. Let’s leave it at that, yeah? No-one ever tries to get closer. Maybe they’re scared. So yeah, sure, they know of her. But it’s not like they, you know, know her as a friend, or anything. That would be weird. So she’s odd and she’s left alone, and maybe someone in the halls admires her long red hair, her low, rich singing voice in the plays and concerts, but that’s that. No-one ever gets too close.
“You’ll never fit in if you’re seen with me,” Charlotte says quietly to the curious new girl hovering next to her, on the first day of their first year of Sixth Form. She’s angled slightly away from her, looking at her out of the corner of one eye. Charlotte recognizes her, vaguely. That new transfer from somewhere in England, she’s not sure where, precisely. She doesn’t really keep up on school gossip.
“Really?” the other girl asks, tapping a rhythm out on the outside of her binder of piano scores. “Why’s that?”
“They think I’m odd.”
“We’re going to a conservatory school for musicians and actors,” the taller girl tells her, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the given value of ‘odd,’ here?”
“Me.” She doesn’t look up from her book, hoping the other girl will go away.
“Yeah, well, we’re all odd. S’what makes us human.”
“Try telling that to the sheep,” Charlotte retorts.
“Bah to the sheep!” The English girl giggles a little. “Sorry. I’m Caitlyn, by the by.”
The introduction, sealed with a firm handshake and two smiles, breaks a crenellation into the wall Charlotte keeps around herself. Caitlyn insinuates herself at her right hand, and never leaves. She ignores the sneers of the school’s resident plastic blondes, thumbing her nose at them and turning back to Charlotte.
“Are all Welsh birds this idiotic, Lotty?” she asks, eyes crinkling at the edges.
Charlotte smiles widely as the flock flounces off.
It’s perfect. Every morning, they meet five or six blocks from school, and Charlotte looks over Caitlyn’s maths as they walk, as Caitlyn tries to blow smoke rings using the frost her breath leaves in the nippy air. They walk side by side, three feet at least between them and anyone else, a barrier of kinship, and, of course, oddness.
They memorize each other’s schedules, and meet up outside the classroom doors. Caitlyn wrangles them a practice period together, and plays the scratched Steinbeck while Charlotte practices her vibrato. They eat lunch alone, still, but now they’re alone together. If anyone tries to get an elbow in, it’s hard to say if either of them even notice, so wrapped around each other now to care about anyone else.
Geeky and odd, possibly, but cold, Caitlyn knows Charlotte isn’t. Behind her smiles and laughs (which come more often now- Caitlyn likes to take some credit for that), something heavier clings like moldy Saran wrap. Scarves and long sweaters that stay on even inside, and clumsiness, constantly clumsiness. If you were to ask Charlotte, you’d come away thinking she must have committed mass doorknob homicide in a past life, considering the grudge they seem to bear her.
Caitlyn never asks. She keeps the words pressed between the lines of her mouth, learns not to ask, or look, just to care, and know. She always knows.
After school, they’ll head to the library, or to Caitlyn’s. Caitlyn knows Charlotte is living with her parents right now, but has been living with her mother’s brother and his husband, both SAS medics whom she loves madly, ever since she was six months old. They’re off on a tour of duty for the next two years, though, leaving Charlotte with two people she’s never met before. They never go to her parents’ house, although Caitlyn knows the address by heart. She’s never been inside, and she secretly imagines it with barred windows, because Charlotte’s parents’ home is a prison, even if it was entered voluntarily.
When it’s cold in the morning, and whiskey is cheap and warming, Charlotte waits for Caitlyn at the stop, pushing fingers through her hair until she resembles a preoccupied hedgehog. She might look like she hasn’t slept for a second all night, but the Caitlyn she looks… just. Glowing. Red hair, white skin, black and blue.
“You know that you can come to mine when this happens,” Caitlyn tells her in an undertone. “My parents would adore having you around more.”
Charlotte doesn’t respond. “Your accent’s starting to round out,” she says.
“Good thing I still have my dashing good looks, then,” Caitlyn quips, but it falls flat. She hasn’t forgotten anything. Charlotte tugs down her cuffs, covering the last visible remnants of what must have been a tough night at home. Caitlyn always feels so small in the face of the easily-hidden ways they hurt Charlotte. If she tells someone, even the uncles, it could make Charlotte’s situation worse: what’s the word of one kid against her parents, a teacher, Charlotte begging her not to? Absolutely nothing.
Charlotte picks a handful of snow off the ground, and drops it down the back of her neck. Caitlyn sees her distraction ploy, and decides to raise her one snowball. They end up being late for school, but Caitlyn doesn’t really mind.
Two or three weeks later, when Charlotte is perched on Caitlyn’s kitchen counter, pushing eggs around in a skillet as Caitlyn trudges down the stairs, Caitlyn isn’t surprised it happened again, only that Charlotte actually took her up on her offer.
Caitlyn mumbles something unintelligible, meaning good morning. Charlotte turns, and the other girl can see the rest of her face. Charlotte is smiling weakly, but Caitlyn’s attention is taken up by the way her right eye is swollen nearly shut, and the patch of flaking blood at the corner of her mouth.
“Christ, Charlotte,” she bursts out, running into the kitchen. She doesn’t ask ‘What happened,’ because it’s obvious.
“I’m fine,” Charlotte says, giving her egg another prod with the spatula.
“You’re not fine.”
“Just clumsy. S’all. I fell.”
“You didn’t bloody fall!” Caitlyn whispers viciously. Her voice cracks the tiniest bit, but Charlotte hates it when anyone cries, so she doesn’t. Her arms are around Charlotte’s slighter frame, suddenly, and Charlotte just stands there, pupils vast like a sea in the dim lights. She keeps muttering that she fell, she fell, really, Caitlyn. Just walked into the door again.
“It’s not your business, anyway,” she says, and Caitlyn whips around and walks out of the kitchen.
Charlotte flips her egg.
During the summer between first and second year of Sixth Form, they balance in between friendship and something else. Caitlyn’s father is out of town for a week, and Charlotte spends all seven glorious days with Caitlyn. It’s not like anyone at her house notices she’s missing.
On the third day, Caitlyn unearths a bottle of cheap rosé, and they drink, laughing at what lightweights they are, until they can’t taste anything but defiance and each other.
It’s different, after that. Every night is full of silly, sticky-sweet kisses, and music that they whisper into each other’s hair. Everyday is sunny and bright, and filled with adolescent daredevilries, holding hands and daring the world to just go ahead and try to touch them. No more barriers. No holds barred. Except for one. Caitlyn doesn’t ask any questions.
It’s a marvelous summer. Charlotte’s uncles take leave over July, and bring them to a family-owned house in Anglesey for two weeks. Caitlyn adores them just as much as Charlotte does, and ignores the tug that tells her that if she told them now, Charlotte wouldn’t have to stay with her parents anymore. The fact that they are returning to their units in a month stops her from saying anything; they couldn’t really do anything, and Charlotte hasn’t got any more family to stay with.
They play around on Traeth Bychan under the skies, swimming in the cold water until shock drives them out, laughing and kissing and dying their little deaths until the moon blushes and pulls clouds over her face to grant them privacy.
When they come back, Charlotte’s mother has a promotion, but she spends most nights at Caitlyn’s anyway. It seems like, maybe, everything’s going to be fine now.
Even so, when the school year starts up again, Caitlyn goes for the martial arts club. Just in case.
School is astronomically better with kisses stolen in broom closets and in the music rooms. Caitlyn somehow discovers an un-alarmed door up the the roof of the main building, and they begin to take their lunches up there, eating alone together.
There’s really an awful lot of kissing, as though they are trying to make up for all the years spent without it. Charlotte teases her about tuna-fish breath, and about how her Estuary accent’s going. Caitlyn ignores it all, making dismissive comments about a BBC One binge, and pulling Charlotte in for another kiss.
It’s so easy, to forget everything but each other. It’s easy to fall into this new, sweet routine, too, to get trapped in a sense of false security.
One day, in a science class, Caitlyn’s teacher cracks a joke about Sod’s Law, and Caitlyn hopes she imagined Charlotte’s wince when she took her in her arms this morning. The scarves and sweaters have been making a comeback; Caitlyn wishes she could blame it on the dropping temperature, but she knows better. She Wikipedia’s the law: Everything that can go wrong, will.
Caitlyn wants to hold Charlotte harder than she ever has, hide her away- but she can’t because she is terrified, bloody terrified of hurting her more. She fights the possessive ache that makes her feel raw and exposed all over, because the last thing Charlotte needs is less space.
Under the pretense of playing sexy, she gets Charlotte’s checked scarf off, and immediately wishes she hadn’t. Charlotte shoves it back up, and says that she just fell down the stairs again, don’t worry, Caitlyn, you know how clumsy I am.
“Stairs don’t have hands,” Caitlyn whispers through a choked throat, because stairs haven’t got hands, and there are handprints on Charlotte’s neck. “You need to tell. Someone. Soon. Or I’ll do it.”
Charlotte shakes her head desperately, and ties the ends of her scarf in a tie knot, so Caitlyn can’t get it off again. “No, no, please don’t, you can’t.” She looks so frail, and she has that bruised look behind her eyes that Caitlyn’d thought that summer had gotten rid of. “Please,” Charlotte begs again. “You can’t ever tell.” She doesn’t add that that would just make it worse, if her parents know other people know. The last year and a half with the two people who ought to be the last she needs protection from, have taught her that they only hit until you cries, and after that you just don’t ask. You just cry and hope they stop and push every word but ‘Please’ out of your vocabulary, shove them in the corner behind you to tremble and creep back in later.
“It’s not- They don’t deserve you,” Caitlyn says. “You’re worth so much more than this.” It takes all her strength not to shout at Charlotte, scream that nothing’s going to get better if no-one ever knows, to honour her goddamn stupid wishes, to pretend that ever-graceful Charlotte is the kind of person who falls down stairs with hands. She wants nothing more than to make Charlotte know- but the last time she tried, she’d discovered Charlotte’s defense mechanism, the one that sends her curling into a ball on the floor, begging please please sorry, and if Caitlyn never has to hear Charlotte apologize through trembling lips again, it will be too soon.
So she brushes a kiss across Charlotte’s left eyebrow, and stalls and stalls, because she’s terrified of letting Charlotte go home again. Even so, her red digital clock flashes red at ten, and she has to go.
Caitlyn watches her trudge down the street, dipping in and out of street-lamp puddles like a starling with clipped wings, until she can’t see her anymore. Her bedroom is cold. Caitlyn walks to the other window and latches it. Winter’s coming on fast.
At school, their pair becomes a trio when a new boy does a remarkable (if unintended) swan dive into Charlotte’s backpack. Charlotte helps him up and dusts him off, glaring daggers at the upperclassmen who’d been trying to get at his comp book.
Charlotte glances through the notes, and looks up in surprise.
“You wrote this?” she asks.
The boy nods.
“It’s wonderful,” Charlotte says, and Caitlyn takes a look and bobs her head in agreement.
The boy huffs a little laugh, breath steaming in the air, and says, with a pronounced Valleys accent, “Thanks for getting rid of them- you didn’t have to.”
Charlotte and Caitlyn grin, and say in sync, “Yes we did.” The boy smiles.
“I’m Daf,” he tells them.
“Very Welsh,” Charlotte responds approvingly, and Caitlyn nudges her shoulder reprovingly.
“She means, ‘Wonderful name, and I’m Charlotte, by the way.’”
“Thanks awfully, Caitlyn,” Charlotte rolls her eyes.
Daf looks a little perplexed, but only says, “You’re Charlotte, then, and she’s Caitlyn? Nice to meet you.”
They nod, and invite him to their lunch spot, and he goes happily.
Winter sets in with a vengeance. Their group is still ‘Caitlyn and Charlotte,’ but Daf is there almost constantly. It’s pleasant, because there’s a difference between being friends and also lovers, and having friends, as in the plural. By New Year’s, Daf has been integrated, and they spend time practicing scales and teasing Charlotte by mangling the Hebrew she tries to teach them for Chanukah.
Even with the doses of happiness, the weather is still cold. The stairs’ fingers haven’t gone away yet.
One frozen mid-February morning, Charlotte isn’t there at the usual corner, waiting for Caitlyn. Daf’s mam drives him to school every morning, so the before-school walks have remained the domain of the two girls. But today it’s only Caitlyn standing on the corner.
She waits until she has to run all the way to school, worrying the guilt in her gut like a hangnail. She only left because of that damn test for the same teacher who introduced her to Sod’s Law. Her grade for the whole class hinges on that thing, and she doesn’t want to see Charlotte’s disappointed look if she fails.
The halls seem darker and gloomier today, even when she meets up with Daf.
“Why were you late?” he asks. He knows not to mention Charlotte, but his eyes dart around, as though he’s expecting her to spring from the wainscoting. Caitlyn doesn’t answer. “Mr. Williams is going to fail you if you don’t pass this test,” Daf tells her after a moment. Caitlyn nods.
Three-quarters of an hour later, Caitlyn is on the final question. It’s extra credit, a fun question about Schrödinger’s Cat. Caitlyn knows the answer, but it yanks at the hangnail-guilt, and she turns in the test thirteen minutes early, with the answer to the final question written in as, ‘The damn cat needs to be alive. She needs to be.’ She runs out the classroom door the second Mr. Williams gives her the nod.
Outside, she tries to reach Charlotte on her mobile, over and over. When the bell sounds, she is joined by Daf, and together they listen to Charlotte’s calm Welsh lilt tell them when to speak.
“Maybe she’s just asleep,” Daf says. “She could be fine.”
“Or she could be freezing to death outside with a head trauma,” Caitlyn growls. Daf looks a little hurt, and Caitlyn passes a hand over her eyes, and apologizes. “But you know what her parents are like, Daf. I’m worried.”
“S’all right,” Daf says soothingly. “Lets walk around for a few minutes, see if she rings us back.” He grasps her wrist gently, and Caitlyn lets herself be pulled.
They both nearly jump out of their skins three minutes later, when Caitlyn’s mobile goes off. She presses the ‘Answer’ button before she can even process the relief.
“Hey, put her on speaker,” Daf urges, and Caitlyn does, fumbling.
“Hi,” comes Charlotte’s voice. It’s a little thready, but she’s all right, she’s speaking.
Daf drops his cool facade, and snatches the phone. “Thank God!” he yells into the speaker. “We thought you…” his voice trails off.
“You worry too much,” Charlotte tells them. Her voice is falsely light, and Caitlyn knows that voice. It’s Charlotte’s ‘Don’t you worry, everything’s peachy’ voice. Obviously, Caitlyn worries, because Charlotte never uses that voice except when something’s wrong.
“Where are you?” she demands.
Charlotte coughs, and it’s wet and harsh enough to make Caitlyn’s throat ache sympathetically. She’s almost ready to toss the phone at Daf and and dash to Charlotte’s house, because it’s a meaningless question: she knows where Charlotte is.
“I stayed home with a bug,” Charlotte lies. “You worry too much.”
“Why do you have to lie to me?” Caitlyn almost shouts, surprising no-one more than herself. “Why? Why do you have to do this? You have no obligation, no reason. They’re hurting you.”
Charlotte more or less ignores this. “I’m sorry,” she says softly, that beaten-in response for whenever someone’s voice is raised. She coughs another wet cough. It doesn’t sound like a stay-home-sick cough, it’s a cough like someone drowning, choking. Caitlyn imagines blood specks flying though the satellite connection between them.
“Don’t apologize to me!” Caitlyn yells, shaking and hot. Daf grabs her wrist, “Calm down, Caitlyn.”
She shakes him off, swears to the dead line that she’s going to come and get Charlotte, promise, and starts to run.
Despite never having actually been within a block of Charlotte’s parents’ home, Caitlyn sprints the whole way. She knows she’ll be hurting sore in the morning, pushing her muscles past what they can handle, but she feels like she’s moving so slowly she could count the pebbles on the pavement. She dimly remembers that this is a symptom of shock, this hyper-awareness, and tries to snap out of it, by cursing her own stupid self for not telling, for keeping Charlotte’s secret from anyone who could have helped.
Next to the house there is a cramped, dead end alley, dim and covered in random patches of brambles and nettles. Sometimes, Charlotte comes in with blackberry leaves in her long hair, so Caitlyn makes a half-realized sob and dashes through the entrance. She feels like vomiting, for ten different reasons, but she keeps running.
There is a familiar battered trainer emerging from between two clumps of nettles, and Caitlyn follows the leg up to Charlotte’s torso and face. She’s wearing shorts and a tank top, and the exposed skin is mottled with bruises. Her leg is splayed at an unnatural angle, one eye swollen and dark, and her nose bloodied. Her lower face and upper chest look…burned, almost, and are covered in deep, clearly-defined cuts, as if she’d had a glass bowl of something boiling thrown at her. She’s listing against the wall, clutching her mobile like a teddy bear. Caitlyn’s no expert, but she figures one of her ribs is broken again, from the way she’s holding herself.
Caitlyn drapes her coat over her, and grabs the mobile to dial 999.
“I’m here, I’m here,” she keeps muttering, crouching beside Charlotte, trying to navigate the phone’s tiny buttons with her trembling hands. She mis-dials again and almost sobs in frustration. She’s choking back the other questions, the ‘Why?’ and the ‘How could…?’ because she’ll never understand that. She finally dials correctly, and at the crisp, “Emergency, which service?” she does sob with relief.
She can never tell anyone what happened next, remembering nothing disjointed snatches of lights and voices, and people trying to tug her away from Charlotte. She remembers seeing a woman, dark haired, with Charlotte’s eyes, standing in the doorway, and seeing her own finger pointing at the woman who must be responsible for the mess of her best friend.
The next thing she really remembers clearly is whiteness.
The first thing Caitlyn sees after waking up is Daf, scrunched into an uncomfortable white pleather hospital chair. She’s confused; she can’t see Charlotte. After a second, the audio kicks in, and she realizes she must be in the hospital.
“Where-?” she begins to ask, only to be cut off by Daf turning around and yelling, “She’s awake!” to someone behind her.
Caitlyn grabs Daf’s arm and asks, “Where is Charlotte?” with the sort of desperation that has Daf looking a bit non-plussed. He smiles, then, and points to the right.
Caitlyn whips around, ignoring her protesting muscles (she’s as sore as she predicted), and just looks for what feels like hours. Charlotte’s only about a yard away, eyes open. Caitlyn makes a strange noise when she makes eye contact, like a sob and a laugh combined with a choke. Charlotte smiles a little, clearly high as the proverbial kite, and Caitlyn is convinced, for the first time, that things are going to start getting better. Caitlyn smiles back, and starts to cry.
Daf dashes back into the room, having apparently left at some point, with Caitlyn’s mum and dad in tow, speaking on the phone to one of Charlotte’s uncles.
Daf wraps her in a hug, and she can hear the voice on the other end of the line frantically demanding to know how long ‘this had been happening,’ and ‘why didn’t she tell us?’
Charlotte keeps on smiling weakly, and the heart monitor beats at a steady, happy pace.