Our story starts in a small town on the outskirts of a small city. There was nothing exceptional about this town. It had houses, a school, many shops, a post office. But our story starts with a someone, with a boy. His name was Charlie Tower.
Charlie shut the door of his house in anger and stomped out into the messy garden. Before he even reached halfway, a voice shrieked out, “You slam that door one more time and I’ll rip it off its hinges and give it to a homeless boy who actually appreciates it!”
“What would a homeless boy do with a door, Mother?” Charlie hollered back.
“Keep the noise down! I’ve just put the baby to sleep!” That was Mrs. Parker. Ever since Charlie’s father had left them for good, his mother had decided that the house was too big for two people, but too nice to sell. So, they rented rooms out to others. The Parkers rented two rooms for themselves and they were quite a cranky lot. The third room was rented by a young woman in her early twenties called Neola. She was the quirkiest woman Charlie had ever had the pleasure to meet. She wore purple powder on her face which clashed terribly with her bright red hair. Neola hadn’t stayed long as a boarder, perhaps only a month, but she got along very well with Charlie. Because of the boarders, Charlie was subjected to sleeping in the attic.
Over the years, the house had deteriorated in appearance. Initially, Charlie spent time trying to fix its appearance—planting flowers in the garden, making sure the porch was clean—but he eventually gave up. Nothing could bring back the happiness that had reigned over this small corner of the universe and though it was primarily his fault, he just couldn’t be bothered with it anymore.
Charlie couldn’t process why he was always the victim of so much anger, frustration and hatred. At fifteen years of age, you would have expected him to be used to the unfairness of the world, but it stabbed him in the chest every single time.
This morning was going to be different. Charlie had left the house prepared. He slung his backpack over his shoulders, unlatched the fence which encircled the garden, and readied himself to brave the adventures of the world. Alone.
He walked past the stump of the oak tree, which he had failed to save, an invisible iciness squeezing his heart. His mother and his mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s father had spent their days climbing that very same tree. And now, despite his attempt at hugging the tree and refusing to let go, the old oak had met its doom at the blade of a chainsaw. That had happened just yesterday and it was the last straw.
Climbing that oak tree had given Charlie solace from time itself. He could spend hours up in its branches just thinking. Sometimes he would bring a magnifying glass to observe the insects which crawled around the bark. Then he would draw it in his notebook trying to imitate the bulbous head of an ant or the delicate legs of a spider. He wasn’t very good at drawing but that didn’t matter much when you were alone, high up in an oak tree.
Charlie hadn’t gone very far from his home, just around the corner of the brick wall, when he saw a man, wearing a lot of light blue powder on his face and black clothing, holding a small girl. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old. Her face was becoming redder by the second. Her attempts at screaming had been blocked. Charlie could just make out a bit of cloth which had been stuffed into the girl’s mouth. Charlie’s first impulse was to sock the life out of the man but that quickly passed when his menacing eyes caught sight of Charlie approaching.
Suddenly, a woman jumped out in front of Charlie and pushed him back. Charlie yelped in surprise. “Neola! What the hell are you doing?” His heart had jumped and was doing a marathon run inside his chest.
The young woman, Neola, swept her bright red hair out of her eyes. She was wearing a long-sleeved red dress which reached midway between her ankles and knees.
“Don’t say a word,” said Neola. She spoke slowly as if she was talking to a five-year-old rather than a boy ten years older. “You’re in danger.”
“I’m in danger? That poor kid over there is in danger!”
“I know, but I can’t show myself to that man! The least I can do is protect you.”
Charlie pulled his arm free and was about to run to the rescue of the girl but to his distress, both the man and girl had disappeared. Neola grabbed Charlie around the middle and shoved him against the side of the brick wall. He was surprised by her superhuman strength. She didn’t look that tough and she’d never been so rough with Charlie. Neola had actually taken the time to talk with Charlie and she was the only person who he had shown his notebook of drawings too. It had felt like he was trusting her with his life.
“I understand you’re scared—”
“I never get scared,” interrupted Charlie.
“—but you must come with me.” Neola kept on talking as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “That man has been collecting, who knows how many, children for days! We’re still trying to find out why.”
“How do I know you’re not ‘collecting children’ either? And who’s ‘we’?”
“Because I’m taking you back home.”
Charlie noticed that Neola avoided answering the second question, but caring about it took too much effort.
“Your makeup doesn’t suit you,” replied Charlie. He had been dying to comment on Neola’s lilac-coloured face ever since she had first arrived at his house. Neola brushed her cheek consciously then steeled herself.
“I’m not wearing makeup and I don’t have time for this conversation right now. Look, the man’s back!” The man was indeed back but, to Charlie’s horror, the little girl wasn’t with him.
“I’ll escort you home. Be more careful with where you wander.”
“Whoa, I’m not going back,” said Charlie, crossing his arms resolutely. His backpack felt heavier on his shoulders as he thought about going back home. He would be living a dismal life with his mother yelling at him every moment she got. She could find fault with him in any given situation. Even if the situation had nothing to do with Charlie. And that was when his mother even paid any attention to him which wasn’t that often.
He had to leave. Where would he go? Well, his plan was to keep walking until something happened. He hadn’t thought that far into his plan yet. It was an impetuous decision really but one he had no doubts about.
“Where are you going?”
“I must keep travelling.”
Charlie’s expression brightened and a grin spread across his face. Luck was on his side. All the dreadful moments had led up to this one moment in time. “Let me come with you.”
The response he got was totally unexpected. Neola scoffed. “No way!” She had started guiding Charlie back the way he had come.
I must say, I’ve never been able to understand hearts very well. They start out as being soft and squishy but grow to become very hard indeed. When Charlie heard those two words, he felt disappointment and despair worm through the semi-hard rock of his heart.
“Please!” Charlie stood still and refused to budge even when Neola tried both pulling and pushing him. Because Charlie was near the borderline of adulthood and childhood, his eyes on the brink of losing their childish wonder, the woman took pity on him.
Neola sighed resignedly. “Fine. But only for a little while.”
“Yes! You won’t regret it.”
“I sure hope not,” said Neola under her breath.