Writing Resources from Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
The Little VagabondsThe snow crunched softly beneath his feet. The winter night seemed to have drained all sound from the earth, while the winter wind bit every exposed piece of skin. Considering the young boy was wearing little more than tattered rags, there was a lot of biting.
"Charlie, I'm cold." The little voice struck at his heart like a knife.
"I know, Mira. We'll find a place to sleep soon."
Charlie peered down the alleyway between two little ranch houses. It looked as if this ally was used by the owners of the two homes to move their trash cans to the curb on trash days. Charlie smiled slightly. Where there are trash cans, there is trash. Where there is trash, there is food. Since today was Sunday, it was unlikely the dump truck had been here recently.
"C'mon, Mira. And remember, be quiet."
The two young children stole silently down the path. When they came to four beat up Rubbermaid trash cans, Charlie looked quickly in. Yes! He put his hand on the topmost bag. he could feel the warmth of the food inside. The family must have just finished supper not long ago.
Charlie ripped open the plastic bag and rooted around the contents. It was amazing what people would throw out. In no time, he found enough food to make a nice turkey dinner- scraps of turkey, a handful of mashed potatoes, even a couple of rolls.
When the pair had finished eating, they wiped their hands on a couple of discarded paper towels. Mira smiled. Charlie knew that she was trying to make him feel better about their situation. He smiled back, but he knew that once she was asleep, the tears would flow freely.
As he looked around, Charlie spied a snow-covered tree house. In the short time they had been on the streets, Charlie had learned to look for signs. A tree house that was covered in snow meant that it had not been used in a while. And the likelihood that a couple of well to do kids would leave the comfort of their warm house with their XBoxes and Wiis to go play in the cold and snow was very slim.
Charlie and Mira crept to the tree house. Carefully, they climbed the little ladder and snuck inside. Charlie cleared a spot on the cold floor and sat down, taking off his ragged coat. Mira climbed in his lap and Charlie wrapped her up tightly.
"Good night, Charlie. I love you."
"Good night, Mira," Charlie choked out. "I love you, too."
The Little Vagabonds IICharlie heard the bus honking outside. If Mira didn't hurry up, they would be late for school... again.
"Mira, let's go! The bus is waiting!"
Charlie heard the clump, clump of Mira's feet on the steps as she hurried down the stairs. She was dressed, once again, in her favorite pink Disney princess t-shirt. Her hair had been lovingly braided by dad which, as usual, was why she was running late.
Mira grabbed her "Beauty and the Beast" lunch box off the counter and ran for the door.
"Bye, Dad! See you when we get home!" Charlie called out. As had happened on so many days lately, dad would head back to bed. For some reason, he seemed more tired than usual. The stress of providing for the three of them was getting to him.
The school bus honked yet again. "Marvin, let's go!"
Marvin? Charlie didn't know any Marvin. In the distance, a door slammed.
Charlie awoke with a start. The memory of his dream was already beginning to fade, but the feeling he had remained. The desire to go back to the way things were before.
Charlie looked down at his sleeping sister, still curled up on his lap. Her hair was braided, though Charlie just couldn't seem to do them as well as his father. It didn't matter anyway. Most people took little notice of the two children.
The only time anyone looked at them was if they were giving Charlie and Mira dirty looks as they passed, or to yell at the children if they thought the kids were getting a little too close.
If there was one thing that Charlie had learned in the few weeks they had been on the street it was that people just didn't give a... He stopped himself in mid-thought. He had used that word once before and Dad had heard. Dad talked to him about it and explained that there were some words that you just don't use. Charlie had promised his dad two things, one of which was to make sure he used language "befitting a young gentleman." He intended to keep that promise.
He carefully moved Mira so he could creep to the little door of the tree house. Without his body temperature to keep her warm, Mira would wake up shortly. He had to make sure, though, that the coast was clear to leave. They could not spend too much time in one place, and Charlie wanted to make sure that they did not get caught. This was a good place to come back to in a few days if they needed.
The little tree house was mostly well built. The two windows, made of clear, hard plastic, kept most of the wind out and the door was enough to cover the only other opening. The roof, though sufficient to cover the structure, was not as well done. It was as though by the time the roof was constructed, the builder had become lazy. After all, it wasn't like anyone would be sleeping in here, right?
As he watched the little powder blue house below, Charlie felt a tug in his belly. He knew that there were two things he would have to find soon: food for breakfast, and a bathroom. There are things you can get away with in the darkness of night that would be impossible in the glaring light of day.
No, a convenience store or fast food restaurant would be the place. There was a Burger King and a McDonald's a couple of streets over. There, they should be able to find what they needed. They could walk in and use the bathroom, the staff would pay no attention. They could wash up in the sink, and then maybe find some food in the dumpster out back. Like the tree house, as long as they don't show up too often, they would be able to go there several more times.
"I love you, too, Daddy." Mira mumbled as the last vestiges of her dream began to fade away. She stirred and her eyes slowly opened. Charlie knew what she had been dreaming and flashes of his own dreams began playing across his mind. Quick images, as those seen by ones who flip randomly through the channels of a television.
"Hey, punk," Charlie said softly to his sister, using the name his father lovingly called his sister. "It's time to get up."
Breakfast at The Better Baguette"Hi, welcome to The Better Baguette. How can I help you?"
"Yes, I'd like two sausage burritos, two ham bagels, a blueberry muffin, two coffees with cream and sugar, and two medium orange juice."
Charlie heard the order and felt his stomach rumble. He and Mira had been successful at sneaking into the restaurant past the staff and using the bathrooms. It's not that there would have been an issue with people in the bathroom, but Charlie did not want to take the chance of someone asking why they weren't in school.
They had "used the facilities" and then washed up in the sink. Their hands and faces were now clean and, except for their clothing (and a slight hint of body odor) they could almost pass for respectable. Charlie and Mira now sat on a cold hard bench at the farther end of the parking lot. Charlie had chosen this bench because it was partially hidden by some trees. They could watch the goings on without being seen.
Charlie was now lost in his favorite game of trying to figure out what people are doing. Here comes a gray Mercedes, barreling into the drive-through lane. Charlie imagined the man was heading to work, but was running late. The old blue sedan carried a grandmother and grandfather enjoying a breakfast together. And here comes a mother, alone.
Charlie imagined that this mother had just dropped her son off at school. He imagined that she was now going to pick up her infant daughter who had been staying with her grandparents. He imagined that he mother stopped to grab a quick cup of coffee. Maybe, Charlie thought, maybe this mother will make it home.
Charlie prayed that this young woman would make it safely to her destination. He prayed that there would not be a distracted truck driver, who looked up a moment too late to see a car in front of him. If there was a God, maybe He would allow this young woman to make it home. Maybe He would allow a young boy to have another day with the mother he loved so much.
Mira had been too young to remember Mamma. Charlie's grandparents had decided that Mom and Dad needed some alone time with him, since Mira had taken up so much of their time in the two years following her birth. It wasn't Mira's fault, that's just how babies are. The day the principal came to the classroom to get him, to tell him there had been an accident, that was one of the two worst days in his life.
Charlie could feel the hot tears beginning to well within his eyes when he suddenly heard a snicker from the young girl next to him.
"What are you chuckling about?" asked Charlie.
He turned to look at his baby sister. She was leaning over the edge of the bench, her hand being completely soaked by the rough pink tongue of a black cat.
"I named him mittens!" Mira said, delightedly. "See? He's got mittens."
Charlie looked closer at the cat and noticed that, what he had first thought was snow covering the kittens paws did indeed turn out to be mittens of white fur.
"Can I keep him, Charlie?" Mira's eyes sparkled mischievously and her lips pouted, the way they always did when she tried to get her way.
"Mira, we can't keep a cat. We can barely feed ourselves." Charlie knew even as he said it that he would end up giving in. He always did.
"Please?" she pleaded. "I'll give him some of my food, and he won't be any trouble."
Charlie thought for a moment. Surely that cat wouldn't follow. He would get bored and return to whomever owned him.
"Sure, why not. But remember, whe... if he leaves, it's his own choice and you can't cry."
"I promise!" Mira threw her arms around her brother. "Thank you, Charlie!"
"Your welcome, punk." Charlie saw a break in the customers and knew his chance to search the dumpster wouldn't last long. "Okay, let's go. Be quite and make sure nobody sees you."
Charlie and Mira walked quickly to the dumpster to look for their morning breakfast. As they neared the old dumpster, Charlie looked back at his sister. He shook his head as he saw that hot on the heels of his little sister was a scrawny black cat with little boots of white.
Growing UpCharlie's heart felt as if it would burst. Behind him, Mira was sniffling and he knew that she wanted to stop. But she surprised him by continuing to run. Behind Mira, the little black kitten, with the little white mittens, was running as fast as it's four legs could carry it.
They had been running for about five minutes. The farther away from the restaurant the better. Charlie knew for certain that the manager would be calling the police. Once he did that, they would be looking for Charlie and Mira. And when they found them, they would split them up for sure.
Charlie had been searching through the dumpster looking for something to eat. He had just stuffed some half eaten bagels, a couple of croissants, and some sausages into his pocket when he heard a noise. Charlie looked up and into the face of a young looking man. He was close enough that Charlie could see his name tag. On it was the name TJ. The name tag indicated that TJ was the manager.
Charlie's blood froze, and it nothing to do with the cold weather. He grabbed Mira's hand and yelled, "Run!"
"Wait!" Charlie heard the man yell. "Come back! If you're hungry I'll give you something decent to eat!"
The man sounded sincere and Charlie almost turned back. Almost, but no. Charlie knew that there would be questions, and with questions, he would have to provide answers. If people knew what happened, then he and Mira would be separated. There were two promises that Charlie had made to his father. And taking care of Mira was one that he would keep no matter what.
Charlie had come home that day from school, just like any other day. Mira was outside playing with a friend from next door. Later, Charlie would be glad that she had not come inside.
"Dad, I'm home!" he called. He put down his backpack and opened the refrigerator, grabbing a root beer from the top shelf. He popped the can open and took a long satisfying swig of the drink.
"Dad? I'm home!" he called again. When his dad didn't answer, Charlie walked up the 16 stairs to the second floor of the house. He walked swiftly down the carpeted hallway to the last bedroom on the left.
Charlie knocked on his dad's door and slowly opened it. His dad was laying in the double bed, covered in the navy blue comforter his mother had picked out shortly before, well, before.
"Charlie," his father rasped. His eyes were barely open, but when they did, they were red and strangely cold. His voice sounded harsh and forced. Charlie knew that he had been having trouble breathing, but this was different.
"Charlie," his dad said once again. Charlie walked slowly to his dad. Charlie's chest suddenly felt heavy, as though being squeezed by a vice. His heart began to pound. He knew something was terribly wrong.
"Charlie, I ain't doing so well." Ain't. Dad never said "ain't". He hated that word.
"I know, Dad." Charlie's voice squeaked as he spoke.
"Charlie, I don't think I'm going to be around to take care of you much longer. You need to promise me, Charlie. Promise me you will take care of her."
"I promise, Daddy." Streams of hot tears ran down Charlie's face. First his mother, now his dad. What kind of life was this for a little boy?
"Promise me, Charlie." His dad said again, his voice becoming weaker with each word. "Promise me you'll take care of your momma."
Charlie knew then that his father was beyond help. He held his father's cold, limp hand and whispered through the tears and sobs, "I love you, daddy."
"I... love... you... too." His father's eyes shut and for the first time in weeks, his face seemed at peace.
Charlie reached down and caressed his father's cheek. The stubble from not having shaved was rough on Charlie's hand. Already, the skin was becoming cool. Charlie bent and gave his father one last kiss on the forehead. His time of being a child was at an end.
Man of the HouseThe warmth of the brick felt good against his back. Despite the cold temperatures, the building had been warmed by the direct sunlight hitting it. They had slipped into a little alleyway that should allow them a few minutes to rest.
Mira knelt down beside Charlie and sat closely to him. The little kitten climbed into Mira's lap, turned three times, then laid down, tucking his head beneath his paws. Mira gently patted his soft head.
Charlie looked around him, making sure that no one had followed them. The had barely gotten away from the man at the restaurant. People walked past the opening to the alleyway, but as usual, no one paid any attention.
Charlie closed his eyes, wishing he was anywhere but here. In the distance, he could hear the sounds of Christmas in the city- bells from the Salvation Army kettle, carols being played in a myriad of stores, fake Santas "Ho, ho, ho-ing" at the passersby.
Charlie knew there was no such thing as Santa, but Mira still held out hope. Christmas no longer held any magic for Charlie. He remembered the cards the family used to get, the ones from relatives long forgotten.
"Ho, ho, hope you have a joyous Christmas!" beamed one. "Have a Merry Christmas!" crowed another. Inside the cards, if anything was written, were generic comments, meant to seem as though they were personal. Charlie knew that they held no meaning for the one who wrote them. Never did anyone express sympathy that Charlie's father was dealing with the holiday without his wife, the kids without their mother.
Dad had always tried to make Christmas special, and for Mira, it usually worked. After all, all she knew was her dad and her brother. Charlie, though, remembered the happy times with his mother.
As far as Charlie was concerned, Christmas was just another attempt by stores to get money selling people things they didn't need, and a way to guilt parents into buying their kids whatever the kids wanted. As the saying goes, "When you care enough..." and if you don't send that gift or that card, then obviously you don't care.
As Charlie looked around, a realization began to dawn on him. He recognized these buildings and knew, with a painful heartache, that they were only a block from the home they had escaped weeks earlier.
Charlie wondered if anyone had discovered his father yet. He tried not to think of his dad's cold, lifeless body still laying in the bed where Charlie had left him, the comforter pulled up tightly around him. Charlie hoped that someone would have come to the house and taken care of his dad one last time.
Dad's boss may have called to find out why he didn't show up for work. But since so many people his dad had worked with just didn't bother to show up, it was unlikely. Charlie had no other family. Well, none that actually cared about them. He wondered if anyone was bothering to look for him and his sister. If so, Charlie would make sure they were not found.
He was the man of the house now, even if they had no house. He looked down at his little sister, with her little kitten in her lap. This was his family. This is all that mattered in the world.
"Merry Christmas," Charlie thought to himself.
The InvitationMira giggled as she bounced on her daddy's lap. Charlie knew she didn't understand the song, she was only just over a year old, but the sight of Charlie and Mom in reindeer antlers and fake red noses was enough to make anyone laugh!
Charlie and Mom had just finished singing, "I'm Gettin' Nuttin' for Christmas", complete with exaggerated movements. Mom was leading the Christmas concert at school this year, so Charlie had a line in the song. He was the one who filled the sugar bowl with ants, and somebody snitched on him!
The lights on the tree behind Charlie and mom danced in Mira's eyes. Mom hugged Charlie and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. To Charlie, this was the way that life would always be. His family was around him and he was so happy.
"Hey, kiddo, great job!" beamed his dad.
"Hey, kiddo. Wake up." A gentle hand shook his shoulder. Charlie's eyes opened slowly, and for an instant, for one fleeting, happy instant, Charlie almost expected it to be Christmas day, with Mom and Dad smiling over him.
As his senses came back to him, Charlie remembered the little alleyway. While he dozed, the sun had moved and now the bricks felt cold and harsh against his body. Scared, Charlie's eyes snapped to where his sister was still nestled up against him. She was awake, and her eyes showed a sign of fear.
"Don't be scared," the man before him said, softly. "It's Charlie, isn't it? And Mira?"
A flash of recognition sparked in Charlie's eyes. Before him was the manager from The Better Baguette, where he and Mira had searched through the dumpster this very morning.
The man sat back on the cold ground, reached behind him and brought forward a small bag bearing the restaurant's logo.
"Please, don't run. I saw your pictures on the news. They have been looking for you both. I'm... I'm sorry about your dad. I lost my father when I was young, too. I can't imagine what it must be like to lose both your parents. "
He reached into the bag and brought out two cartons of chocolate milk and two warm cheese danishes.
"I thought maybe this would taste better than the stuff from the dumpster."
Mr. Mittens, the small cat that Mira had adopted- or maybe the cat had adopted them- stepped forward to smell the offering of food. The man, Charlie remembered now his name was TJ, pulled a piece of danish apart and held it out for the kitten. The cat licked the small piece, then grabbed it from the man's fingers and ran back to Mira.
Charlie looked at Mira and found her looking back. Her eyes asked him the question he asked himself: can we trust him?
Charlie reached out warily and took the danishes and chocolate milk. Silently, and not taking his eyes off the stranger in front of him, he handed one of each to Mira.
"My name is TJ," the man said. He looked away thoughtfully, as though deciding what he would say next. "I spent some time on the streets, too. That was how I found you. Well," he chuckled, "I had to look down a few alleys, but, here you are."
"What do you want from us?" asked Charlie. "Mira and I are fine on our own."
"I just want to help. My wife and I have watched your story and have prayed for you each night. What happened to you, to the both of you, no kid should ever have to go through that." The man's soft blue eyes misted over. Charlie found himself desperately wanting to believe him.
"I won't leave Mira. I promised." Charlie made his voice as hard and defiant as he could.
"I'm not asking you to leave her. I wouldn't dream of splitting you two up. Let me make you a deal. Come with me, meet my wife. Let us give you a decent meal and a warm, dry place to sleep tonight. No strings attached. If, in the morning, you don't want to stay, you can leave."
"Can we bring Mr. Mittens?" Mira asked eagerly.
"Mira, hush!" said Charlie.
"So, Mr. Mittens it is. I was wondering what to name the little fellow." He reached out a hand toward the cat. Mr. Mittens ran over to TJ and allowed the young man to pat him roughly. The cat's purr could be heard over the din of the city.
"Of course you can. We love cats. In fact, I've been feeding this guy some scraps from the store. Ssshh, don't tell anyone!" He smiled broadly.
"Our parents told us never to trust strangers." Charlie said, still eying the man with caution.
"And they are right, you shouldn't." He leaned back with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Tell you what, I don't live far from here. I'm going to head home now, my wife is waiting for me. If you two should, say, happen to follow me, and if you should decide to come for a visit, we would welcome you graciously. The choice is up to you."
The man smiled one last smile then rose and walked slowly away, whistling. Mira and Charlie looked at each other.
"What do you think, Punk? Do we trust him?"
"Mr. Mittens likes him." Mira replied. "Cats always know who is good."
Charlie thought for a moment, watching the man slowly disappear around the corner. What was he thinking? Was he seriously considering this? Mira was certainly convinced, then again, so was the silly cat!
"Okay, we go, we see what the house is like and what the lady is like. If I think for a second that something is not right, we're outta there. Got it?"
"Got it!" Mira held out her hand and Charlie grasped it tightly.
"Okay, Punk. Let's do this."
Hand-in-hand, the two children walked in the direction TJ had gone. As they rounded the corner, they caught site of him a few stores down. He had been looking into an old bookshop. Charlie saw the man steal a glance his way before continuing along. Charlie knew the man had been waiting for them. He wondered again what would happen when they got to the house. Secretly, in some deep place, he hoped that he and Mira would find a place to finally rest.
Meeting MelanieThe house looked like something that Charlie remembered seeing from one of the old television shows he and his dad used to watch. A little white picket fence encased the small yard. Charlie could almost imagine a nicely manicured lawn underneath the thin blanket of snow.
On the porch were three people, eyes anxiously watching the two children and the small cat. On was TJ, the manager from the restaurant, who had a few minutes before given Charlie and Mira danishes and chocolate milk. The other two people were ladies.
The woman on the porch was an older, black woman. She was dressed in a business suit, not unlike one that Charlie's mother would wear to a special occasion. She smiled at Charlie and Mira, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes. Charlie's mother had told him more than once, that if a smile didn't reach your eyes, then it wasn't sincere.
The other woman was sitting on the porch steps. She had long dark hair and small framed glasses. She looked comfortable in her sweater and jeans. For a moment, Charlie thought she looked almost as pretty as his mother. Almost.
"Hi," the woman on the porch said softly as Charlie and Mira reached the fence gate. "My name is Melanie."
Charlie waved tentatively. He didn't know these people, but manners were manners.
Melanie gestured to the lady behind her. "This is Rachael Weaver. She's a friend of ours."
Rachael smiled again. "Hello, Charlie, Mira."
"We..." Charlie started, then the words caught in his throat. He cleared his throat and started again. "We decided that we would come and visit for a few minutes."
"I'm glad you did," smiled Melanie. "Would you like to come sit and talk? Mrs. Weaver and I made some cookies, and we have hot chocolate. We can stay out here on the porch, if it makes you more comfortable."
Charlie looked at Mira and she nodded slightly. He reached down and lifted the latch on the gate. As soon as he opened it, the cat bolted through and up onto the porch. Apparently, Mr. Mittens liked the smell of fresh cookies.
Charlie and Mira walked hand-in-hand toward the porch. They had agreed that if something didn't feel right, they would turn around and leave. And Charlie wanted to make sure that they could run away as quickly as possible.
The siblings sat slowly onto the bottom step. Melanie handed the plate of cookies to Charlie. He took two and handed two to Mira.
"Mrs. Weaver is a friend of ours from Church," TJ said, sitting down next to his wife. "She also works with kids, like you, who need places to stay."
Charlie glanced sharply at Mrs. Weaver. He began to wonder if this had not been some trick to find and separate him and Mira.
"TJ and Melanie have been a foster family for many kids over the last few years." Mrs. Weaver passed a small album to Melanie, who past the book to Charlie. "Right now, there are no kids in the home, and they have asked if you two could stay for a while."
Charlie opened the book. Mira leaned in closer, laying her head on his shoulder. Together they looked through the pictures of kids, young, older, of all nationalities, who had spent time with TJ and Melanie.
"We wanted to make sure that you knew this is a safe place." TJ choked out the words. Charlie looked into his eyes and noticed that once again, they were misting over. "Mrs. Weaver has promised us that you two would be together. All you have to do is accept the offer."
Charlie suddenly felt the whole weight of the time that he and his baby sister had spent on the street. The thought of a bed, a shower, a warm inviting place to rest pressed upon his young head. As he looked at Mira, a single tear made its way down his cheek.
"I'm tired, Charlie. Can we stay, just one night?"
Charlie smiled as another tear leaked its way from his eye. "Ok, Punk. Maybe one night wouldn't hurt."
A Place to Call Home. Maybe"What do you think?" Charlie stood in the shadows listening to the young couple talking about him and Mira.
"I hope that they will like it here," TJ said to his wife. He reached out and took another flower patterned plate from the dishpan. Slowly, almost absentmindedly, he began to wipe it.
"They seemed to be ok." Melanie turned to her husband and lines appeared on her pretty face. "They must have had such a hard time out there. Their clothes, they were little more than rags!"
Having been foster parents to so many kids, the couple had extra clothes on hand. Mira had found a pink nighty with Dora the Explorer on it. Charlie and Mira had never watched the show, but it was pink, and that was good enough for Mira.
Charlie was wearing an over-sized New York Yankee shirt. TJ had offered shirts that would be more Charlie's size, but the Yankees had been his parents' favorite team. He didn't tell TJ this, though. Charlie just said he liked the feel. There were some secrets he preferred to keep. For now.
They each had a nice hot bath and Melanie had taken extra time brushing out Mira's hair, while Mira brushed Mr. Mittens who was, once again, curled up in her lap. Mira liked the attention and babbled the entire time.
The kids opted to share a bed in the room that had been used by so many other children. They could have each had their own, but spending so much time alone, they weren't about to leave each other now.
Mira had fallen asleep quickly, the little cat nestled peacefully next to her. Charlie, though, could not seem to quiet his mind. His thoughts raced to what was going on downstairs. Why were these people being so nice to him and Mira? What was in it for them?
After his mother had died, people seemed to abandon Charlie and Mira and their dad. Why, after all this time, would someone want to help them now?
"All we can do is hope that they allow us to help them. We just have to remember what Rachael said, and just take it slowly. " TJ finished drying a cup and placed it gently in the cupboard.
"They are not like the others kids who came here. Charlie and Mira were left all to their own. It has to be their decision."
"But if they try to leave, won't they be taken by Child Services?"
Charlie's breathing suddenly became shallow as he realized he may indeed be separated from his sister.
"If they try to leave," replied TJ, "then yes, they would. We have to make sure that doesn't happen. These kids would crumble without each other."
The couple, having finally finished the dishes, walked silently into the living room, leaving Charlie to digest what he had just heard. Not only did these nice people want to help Charlie and his baby sister, but they wanted to make sure that the siblings stayed together.
Charlie walked quietly back to the room and slipped in next to his sister. The kitten mewed, then tucked its head under its paw and went back to sleep. As he drifted off to sleep, Charlie started to dream that, while it would never be 'home', maybe this wouldn't be such a bad place after all.
Church Time"I'm so glad I'm a part, of the family of God!"
Charlie tried to remember where he had heard that tune before. Somewhere, back in the hidden closet of his mind, he remembered a church. The church was big and bright and filled with a lot of people. He remembered the sound of the organ echoing through the hall and the sight of women dressed in fancy gowns with bright colored hats. The man all wore suits and ties and everyone referred to everyone else as Mr. or Mrs.
At some point, after his mother had died, Charlie's dad stopped going. He had said to Charlie once that he didn't have a problem with religion or God, he just had a problem with the followers.
So, when TJ and Melanie told them they were going to church, Charlie very nearly said no. Mira though, having been too young to remember and always wanting to try something new, had immediately said yes!
On the way to the little church, Charlie had expected that they would slip in, do the "church thing" and then slip out unnoticed. He was surprised, then, when a nice looking young man came right up to them and welcomed them.
"Charlie, Mira, this is Pastor Michaels. He's our preacher."
Charlie was surprised. The man didn't look any older than TJ and was wearing dress pants and a short sleeved shirt. He looked nothing like the gray-haired men Charlie had seen on television, dressed in fancy suits and thick glasses. Pastor Michaels would not have looked out of place as a teacher in Charlie's old school.
"Oh, no need to be so formal," the young preacher said. "Everyone just calls me Pastor Mike."
Mira giggled a little. "Your name is Mike Michaels?" Inwardly, Charlie groaned. He knew, just knew, that the man was going to be upset at the statement.
Instead, Pastor Mike chuckled, leaned down close to Mira, and said, "Yeah, my parents aren't very creative when it comes to names!"
"How many times do I have to tell you? Michael was my grandfather's name!" The voice belonged to a tall thin, salt and pepper haired women making her way down the aisle. She was smiling widely and she winked as she saw Charlie.
"This young lady is my mother." Pastor Mike put his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. "You can call her Miss Barbara, but most of the kids just call her Grammy. She teaches the Children's message. So, after we finish with the songs, if you don't want to listen to me bore you, you can go with her."
"Can I go to?" joked TJ.
Miss Barbara chuckled. "I've already taught you in Children's Church, young man. I'm afraid you have to stay out here!" She turned to her son and said, "Your father's looking for you. He wants to know how many verses of "Crown Him with Many Crowns" you want to do."
Later on, there was a time to "Meet and Greet". Charlie worried that they would be smothered with people wanting to shake their hands and treat them like a circus show. Fortunately, the people were very polite. They shook hands and said it was nice to see them. A few of the parents introduced Charlie and Mira to their kids.
"If you need anything, or have any questions, please just ask!"
A couple of pews ahead, a red-haired boy, Charlie thought his name was Dougie, turned around and stuck his tongue out at Charlie. Charlie wondered why the boy was being so mean to him, but a few minutes later, during the announcements, the young boy again turned around. This time, he seemed to be making fun of the man doing the announcements. Charlie chuckled, but Dougie stopped abruptly when his mother tugged sharply on his left ear and gave him a fierce look.
During Children’s Church, Dougie insisted that Charlie sit next to him. By the end of the time, he and Charlie were, as Miss Barbara put it, “joined at the hip”.
As the kids filtered back into the sanctuary to find their parents, Dougie ran to his mother. “Mom! Mom! Mom! Can Charlie come over for lunch today? Please??”
Charlie was surprised that this boy had wanted to invite him to his house. Dougie's mother looked from Dougie to Charlie and frowned. "I'm sorry, but you can't today. Your brother has a ball game today in Milton. That's about two hours away."
Charlie's heart sank. He wondered if this was the real reason, or if the woman just did not want her son to be around someone like him.
"But you know, next week would be perfect!" Charlie looked up and was surprised to see a smile on the woman's face. "We would love to have you over for lunch. In fact, why doesn't the whole family come over?"
For a moment, Dougie's mother looked shocked at her words. She knew that Charlie and Mira were only staying with TJ and Melanie for a while, yet she had called them a family.
"Oh, you know what I mean! We would love to have all of you come over. I have a recipe for a lemon pepper chicken that I have been dying to try out!"
"Oh, mom! Do you have to cook? Dad hasn't finished scraping the pans from last week's lunch!"
As everyone laughed, Charlie began to consider everything that had happened in the last few days. He and Mira had a place to sleep, food to eat, and people that seemed to genuinely care what happened to them. While part of him rejoiced that he had made his first real friend in a long time, another part secretly wondered if he wasn't betraying the love for his mom and dad.
Panic!Thump, thump, thump!
Charlie’s heart beat a rhythmic pounding in his ears. His face felt cold as the blood rushed away. In his ears, a tingling caused the noise around him to be muffled. Mira was screaming with happiness, but all he could feel was a numbness coursing its way through his body.
Thump, thump, thump!
The sound in his chest seemed to grow louder with each beat and kept perfect time with the miniature grandfather clock in the hallway. A bead of sweat began to make its way down Charlie’s cheek. The fingers in his left hand began to ache and he realized he had been gripping the silver fork tightly. So tightly, in fact, that he found he had begun to bend it.
Thump, thump, thump!
They could not have possibly said what he thought they said. As the panic began to rise within him, threatening to drown him like a flood, Charlie found himself looking into the worried face of TJ. He saw TJ’s mouth move and knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that TJ was saying Charlie’s name.
"Charlie? Charlie? Charlie?"
Each mention of his name spoken in time with the pounding of the blood in his ears. Charlie began to shake his head. The water now flowing down his cheek was no longer sweat but tears flowing from his eyes.
"No, no! NO!"
Charlie flew from the chair, sending it flying backward into the diamond-patterned wallpaper. Had he bothered to look back, he would have been ashamed to discover that there was now a golf-ball sized hole in one of the diamonds.
Slam, slam, slam!
Each footfall brought him closer to the door. Charlie burst into the warm night air. The sun had fallen just enough that the streetlights were coming on ("Charlie, make sure you come in when the streetlights come on!" he remembered his mother saying).
Charlie crashed through the little gate, turned left and ran down the street. His eyes blurred from the tears streaming freely down. His feet were on autopilot and took him where they saw fit to go.
He and Mira had been with TJ and Melanie for a few months now and all had been good. Why would they decide to ruin things now? Charlie's chest heaved with the exertion of running so hard. The pounding in his chest now more from exhaustion than the panic that had started it.
He found a bench and decided to sit, crying and wondering why he couldn't just have had his parents.
A few minutes later, feeling as though there was nothing left in him to cry about, Charlie began to look around. Realization began to dawn on him as he found that he was once again sitting in the parking lot of The Better Baguette, the little restaurant where he had first met Mr. Mittens, the little kitten that had adopted Mira. And, where he first met TJ.
"Charlie?" A quivering voice spoke his name.
Charlie looked up into TJ's worried face. He could see the look of panic and fear and, even more, the tears in his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Charlie. We thought you and Mira would be happy. We, we just wanted to have you in our lives forever. That's, that's why we wanted to adopt you."
Charlie's Feelings Come OutCharlie stared into the face of the man he had come to admire, a man whose eyes now were wet with tears and whose face showed immeasurable concern. Charlie's heart ached with a desire to say he was sorry, to say he really did want to be part of this man’s family. But no, he couldn’t betray his parents like that.
“Charlie, Melanie and I just want to give you a safe place to be, someone to protect and care for you. That’s all.”
Charlie felt a confusion of feelings: fear, pain, longing, rage. He stood abruptly, his fists clenched beside his waist. Suddenly, every emotion that he had ever felt surged into him. He no longer felt in control and let loose with everything he had.
“How could you? How could you do this? I trusted you!”
TJ sat back, baffled at the tirade suddenly being directed toward him.
“I want MY parents back. I want them, not you, not Melanie. I want MY mom and dad. And they left me! They left me all alone. Can’t you see? Nobody stays around. I hate them! They left me alone.”
Charlie cried uncontrollably and sank to his knees. “Why did they leave me? Why does everyone leave me?”
As Charlie sobbed, he suddenly felt two small hands gently touch his face. He peered through the tears into the shinning eyes of his baby sister.
“Charlie?” she whispered softly. “I didn’t leave you.”
Mira leaned in closer and hugged her brother. He smelled the shampoo that she had used to wash her hair. It smelled faintly of strawberries.
“Charlie, we would never, ever think of trying to replace your parents. And I know that the last thing they wanted was to leave you and Mira.” Melanie sat cross-legged next to him. She desperately wanted to hug the boy, but experience told her that now was not the time.
“All we want is to give you a place to be safe, to give you a chance to be a kid. The things you and Mira have gone through, have had to deal with… that’s something kids should never have to go through.”
Charlie began to feel all the pain slowly ease out of him. In its place, exhaustion began to take hold.
“Can you, maybe, just think about it, Charlie?” As TJ spoke, Charlie wished he could take back everything he had just said to the man.
“Yeah, Charlie,” Mira said. “Can we just think about it?” She leaned in closer and whispered, “Mr. Mittens likes them!”
In spite of himself, Charlie smiled. Deep down, he knew that his parents did not choose to die. They had been cruelly taken from him and Mira. And with them, his innocence had been taken as well. All he wanted was to just be free of the pain he felt, to be able to relax and not have to worry about where they would sleep or what they would eat. Could TJ and Melanie really provide that freedom?
“Yeah, okay, Punk. We’ll think about it.”
Mira jumped up and yelled, “Yes!”
TJ reached out his hand to Charlie and smiled. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go home.”
Hesitantly, Charlie took his hand and the four began to walk back to the little house with the picket fence. To any passersby, they would have looked like nothing more than a family out for an evening stroll. No one would have been able to guess how far they had come. Or just how far they had yet to travel.
The Final SpeechThe audience quieted as the speaker reached the podium. The valedictorian was about to speak to the graduating class.
“Ladies and gentleman, classmates, family, friends. On behalf of the senior class, welcome to graduation.”
The assembly erupted with cheers and applause.
“It is so difficult to believe that so many years have passed since we first came to this school. Many of you know the difficulties from which we came. Our parents passed away when we were young and we spent time alone on the streets. I remember more than one person telling us, ‘You’re not worth my time.’ However, God decided to have other plans. Just when we needed them most, a loving couple came into our lives and took us in.”
The speaker paused and glanced at a couple a few rows back. TJ and Melanie had certainly aged, but they were still recognizable as the ones who so long ago had taken in a young boy and his little sister.
“It was from them that I learned what I now pass on to you: Always do your best, no matter what. TJ and Melanie told me more times than I can count that if you can come home at the end of the day, look at yourself in the mirror, and can honestly say, 'I did the best I could do,' then you had a good day, regardless of whatever else might happen.
"As we leave these halls and enter the 'real world' I charge each of you, be true to yourself and do your best. If you do, you will not have to try to impress anyone, they will know you by your works."
The speaker paused as once again the crowd began to clap. As the applause began to die down, the speaker paused, feeling tears begin to well up inside.
“Fourteen months ago, I lost my best friend in the world. My brother, Charlie, passed away from leukemia.” Mira began to feel the tickle of a hot tear make its way down her face.
“Throughout our lives, despite all the pain, all the trials, and all the, well, all the crap that we dealt with, Charlie always said that the one constant we had was each other. This is the second thing I wish to pass on to each of you: hold fiercely to the friends you make.
"One of the last things Charlie told me was, 'Punk, I promised Dad that I would take care of you, and I hope I did OK. You have to take care of yourself now. And take care of TJ and Melanie, too'.
Time on this earth is so short and you never know what may be around the next corner. Allow your heart to be open to the people and possibilities that God brings into your life.”
Mira smiled at TJ and Melanie. “Open your hearts to those that desire to help you, and love you. And never forget those who held your heart along the way. Thank you.”
Every person, young and old, rose as one and applauded Mira’s speech. Mira, however, did not notice the ovation. Her eyes gazed toward Heaven and she whispered two simple words. “Thanks, Charlie.”
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