by Hamen Cheese
Chapter 6: Don't Call Me Charlie
Charlie and I looked up at the second floor of the Sundial Mall. It wasn't the biggest mall in our side of the city but it certainly was the classiest. It was called Sundial Mall after, yep you guessed it, the big sundial that was the centerpiece of the mall. It sat slightly elevated in the midst of palm trees and remotely passable bushes that the original designer had tried but failed to base on a picture he found in a magazine called Garden Homes. He had long since switched professions to plumping where his materials at least had the decency to retain the shape he wanted despite the passage of time.
A huge glass dome wrapped around the mall's center structure allowing light to enter. As nearly all stores in the inner sanctum wrapped around the sundial, most shoppers were acutely aware of how much time they had left before their next task, such as having to go home to prepare dinner for the kids (or in the younger generation's case, how much time they had left before their mothers went home to prepare dinner and they could finally stop hiding in the arcades).
On a Saturday though, the sundial went mostly ignored as both parents and children gave little attention to time. Nothing important ever happened and Saturday, at least nothing that couldn't wait until after the weekend.
"There it is, Hero. And wow, it looks pretty packed," Charlie pointed to a store which had banners with the words "Grand Opening" dangling across the entrance. A few people were milling around the entrance as though undecided if they should join the lines that stretched several stores away.
I felt slightly guilty being uncomfortable as Charlie called me Hero. I mean, before that day, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. But then…
"We should get up there if we want to try it before everyone else finishes the good flavors," Charlie said excitedly.
I shrugged. "Sure." I felt almost indifferently to the new store. Charlie was referring to a new gelato ice cream place that opened just that day. From what we heard, it would be the first sugar and fat free gelato ice cream to be served near our place. Naturally, people would flock to the allure of something new. Personally, I wasn't so psyched about it because ice cream even if it was sugar and fat free was still ice cream which meant calories that could ruin my perfectly hot and sexy body. Ice cream was ice cream no matter what fancy name you gave it. However, Charlie was excited over it as he loved anything sweet.
We made our way to the escalator that led to the second floor. As we were going up, Charlie punched me in the arm. Well, I think it was a punch. It could have passed as a moderately strong pat. Barely. "What's up with you," he asked. "You've been all like quiet. You haven't even given me a noogie, or a punch, or a slap."
I chuckled. "Do you want me to?" I began flexing my muscles.
"No," he said with a laugh as we got off the escalator and turned towards the direction of the store. We could see several dozen people lining up outside, crowding the corridor, talking excitedly. "It's just, you don't seem like yourself today. How was practice?"
"Well, it was practice, I guess," I said. I didn't tell Charlie what happened on the court and in the locker room. I had no intentions of doing that either.
"Yeah, sorry about missing it. I hope you didn't miss me too much."
"Why would I miss a hawk watching over me as I play? Or should I say mother hen?"
Charlie grunted and pouted. "This is the thanks I get for all the time I've spent supporting you. Tsk. Tsk. You need to appreciate your fans more, especially your biggest one."
"I appreciate my fans just fine thanks," I said with a punch. I felt slightly better, maybe just a little pleased that Charlie would say he was my biggest fan. It felt gratifying, and yet…
"Besides, I rather would have gone with you. All mom wanted to do was talk about college. I'm not even in High School yet and she's already planning for college. She kept asking me questions about how I was, what my interests were, and what my plans were. I think it's that whole lawyer thing of hers kicking in. She wants all her bases covered. Sometimes, it can get unnerving."
"I know what you mean," I said and we both laughed out loud because we both did know. Our parents always went to Mrs. C when they wanted information out of Charlie or myself – like who broke my mom's favorite jar, or who painted the neighbor's black cat white (as I recall, the color was beige although I didn't think pointing that out would help prove my… err, our innocence). As tough as Mrs. C was in her interrogations though, she always rewarded us with something afterwards. I was sure Charlie had in his pockets enough money from his mom for gelato for the both of us. It was like a thank you for being cooperative while I tortured you, now here's a treat thing. I swear though, we were innocent each and every time we were suspected for doing something naughty… all thirty-three incidences do date.
"So, what are you going to have?" Charlie asked as we reached the start of the line. The place itself was packed so I couldn't even see what the flavors were. Something else I noticed was that most of the people in line were kids our age with a few scattered parents. I recognized a lot of them but I didn't know them by name. I was pretty sure though that they knew who I was. "My mom gave me enough cash so that we could have two scoops each."
"I'll just have one scoop," I said as I tried to look over the heads to see the flavors. I had to look away though because my voice had echoed except the echo sounded exactly like Charlie. A few heads turned in our direction. "Okay, what was that?"
Charlie just grinned knowingly. "What? You didn't think I know you enough by now? You always say you want just one scoop whenever we go to an ice cream store. Even if our moms give us enough money for four scoops, you always eat just one. I always eat two and sometimes, if I was particularly hungry which I am today, three." If Charlie was a cat, he would have made an excellent model for a feline toothpaste commercial just then.
"I swear I don't understand how you can remain so thin with all that sugar you eat. And since I know what you eat, I can say you're probably underweight, obese, and malnourished all at the same time." I was about to punch Charlie on his arm when I noticed that the brunette in front of us who had turned when she heard our synchronized voices was still looking at us. She also had a smirk on her face that I didn't like at all. The face itself was beautiful, along with the sexy body below it. I could have done without the smirk though.
"Derek Hampton," she mused.
"Rebecca Hastings," I replied smoothly to the Badminton Captain of Southmore Middle School. My eyes lingered momentarily and discretely over her prized possessions which every decent… and for that matter, indecent… guy on Southmore knew were the most developed in Middle School. "Stunning as always," I said as though she had asked me how I looked.
"Don't think for a moment that your charm works on me, Derek," she replied coyly. "Flattery won't get you anything from me." As she spoke to me, I could have sworn (though Charlie just rolls his eyes whenever I recount that conversation) that she was staring at my crotch the whole time.
"I am just stating the truth," I said confidently. "You are one of the hottest girls in school." With a glance behind her, I added, "just like your friends."
Several girls behind Rebecca started giggling and turning their bashful modes on. "Hi Derek," one of them squealed. Then she broke down into giggles and started hiding behind her hands. The other girls gave her an I can't believe you just spoke to Derek Hampton look before breaking down into giggles themselves.
Rebecca rolled her eyes at them. "Ignore them," she said with a wave. Then she turned her eyes towards my best friend. "Hey Charlie."
"Hey Becca," he said with a friendly smile.
Confusion set into my mind, then left leaving it blank, then returned and settled with a vengeance. Did he just call her Becca? Something was wrong with this picture.
"How are you?" she asked in a tone completely different from the one she had used with me. Somehow, it sounded… friendlier and more personal.
"Wait, a minute," I interrupted. "You know each other?" I asked as my head swung from one to the other.
"Is that so shocking to believe?" Charlie smirked. I gawked at his peculiar behavior. Usually, he was quiet when there were other people involved in the conversation. At that moment, he seemed comfortable talking with Rebecca despite the fact that there were a gaggle of girls giggling at her back.
"Yeah," Rebecca said. "Do you think he can't meet people without you being there?"
I suddenly felt like I was being double teamed, something I was used to on the court. Not, however, something I was used to out of it, especially not by Charlie and a girl. "Okay, wait a minute, I'm asking the questions here."
"What gave you that idea?" Rebecca asked with a devilish grin. Charlie laughed out loud. I swore that girl was going to get on my nerves and Charlie was helping her.
"Hero, you're blushing," Charlie said between breaths. I wasn't blushing. I don't blush.
"So is it true you call Charlie Big C?" she suddenly dropped on me.
I hesitated long enough that both of them gave me odd looks. "Yeah," I said just a tad bit nervously – no, not nervous, more like mildly concerned. I did not get nervous (except when Mrs. C was involved). Somehow though, it felt like a little of my voice had left.
She developed this most curious expression on her face that was somewhere between a grin and a frown that would have made me burst out laughing if I wasn't so nervous… I mean mildly concerned. I wondered and then was certain that so many critical and probably evil nasty thoughts were crossing her mind at that moment. "Funny name to call someone," she finally said. "You should tell me about it some time." And then she smiled at me for the first time that afternoon. A little bit of the frosty coating on her melted off. "Anyway," she said turning once more to Charlie, "why weren't you at practice earlier?" she asked it like Charlie was involved in an actual sport.
"Had to spend the day with the mother," he whined as we moved along in the line. It was strange. I had never heard Charlie refer to his mom as the mother with me.
Rebecca rolled her eyes, or more like her head rolled around her eyes. "Uhh… I know all that. My mom insists on going out all the time. She thinks shopping is a good mother and daughter bonding experience. Usually though it's just her picking out all these clothes and forcing me to try them on. I swear if I didn't know that it would make her unhappy, I'd tell her that I'd rather do my shopping on my own."
"Well, my mom's kinda like that," Charlie said. "Except mine prefers to talk rather than to shop."
"Oh yeah," Rebecca said, "lawyer right?"
"Yep," Charlie said cheerily as though happy that she remembered.
"Well," she said with a flick of her hair. "Next time, we can save each other by telling our respective mothers that we're on a date." She reached out with her hand and held Charlie's. For a moment or maybe an eternity, they were holding each other's hand before suddenly bursting out laughing as though they had just shared the biggest joke in the world. I wasn't the only one confused by the display as even Rebecca's friends seemed perplexed by what was supposedly funny.
Suddenly, I didn't feel like having gelato.
"Hey Charlie," I said. "Is it alright if I skip this one? You can stay and order if you like but I think I'll walk around for a bit."
Charlie frowned. "Uhh, well I guess I could just come back later. Is something wrong, Hero?"
"No," I said quickly, my words nudging my feet to move away. "I just don't feel like having ice cream right now. "
Charlie turned to Rebecca with a shrug. "Well, I guess I'll see you later, Becca."
"Yeah," she said with a clearly concerned voice. "See ya later Charlie, Derek."
"See ya," I said quickly as I turned away. I didn't even bother flattering the giggling girls behind Rebecca, something I was somehow sure I would have done normally.
"Hey, are you feeling alright?" he asked as we went further and further away from the gelato store. I was headed towards the coffee shop where I knew our moms were talking and wasting time.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm just not feeling well."
Charlie looked like he didn't believe me. Perhaps it was because I had never really used that excuse before. To be honest, I just didn't want to be in that situation, with Charlie and Rebecca together. I didn't know why. It just made me uncomfortable, gave me some unease I couldn't explain then. Not knowing or understanding what was bothering me was bothering me even more, so much so that I was becoming irritable, something Charlie was quick to notice.
"So what do you want to do?" Charlie asked probably in an attempt to just talk about something else.
"I dunno," I said as I hurried even more towards the coffee shop. "Go home I guess."
"Go home?" Charlie asked in a mocking undertone. "On a Saturday? When our moms are giving us the opportunity to be out? You really must be sick."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to go home, Charlie," I said irritably.
"Okay, stop," Charlie said as he reached out and grabbed my arm. I was moving with such momentum that Charlie's lightweight body tipped over as he stopped while I kept going. He would have fallen face first on the floor if I didn't catch him.
I figured he would say I'm sorry or thank the heavens and the stars that you caught me, Hero. Instead what he said was, "what is wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me?" I asked. "You're the one who fell over."
"I'm not talking about that," he waved his hand airily. "I'm talking about you calling me Charlie."
"That is your name, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Charlie said in a voice that said he did not appreciate being mocked. "That's what other people call me. That's not what you call me. You've always called me Big C."
I should have thought yes, I have and I'm sorry I'm acting like a jerk. Yet, the only words that kept coming to my mind were Luke's words: People will start thinking things. Don't those pet names sound gay to you? You and your boyfriend.
"Maybe I don't want to call you that anymore," I decided.
Charlie looked like I had slapped him in the face, slapped him hard just after taking away an amazing gift in his hands. He suddenly looked so small and I could see so much confusion and hurt in his eyes. "Why?" he whispered.
"I dunno," I said scratching my head in an attempt to seem really confused. I was pretending I knew but somehow it lightened the shame I was feeling. "Maybe we've outgrown it."
"Is this about Becca?" he said. "If you don't want me hanging out with her, I won't. I only ever talk to her when I watch you train. She's the only one who ever comes and talks to me while I wait for you."
That surprised me. In all the time, I've seen Charlie at practice, I've never noticed Charlie talking to anyone. Then I tried thinking about it more. Since I could remember things clearly when I wanted to, I noticed things that I overlooked before. Charlie had met Rebecca in the gym. They had been talking. I didn't know how I missed it, but I did. I could remember every instance of Rebecca talking to Charlie as they sat near each other but never too close, or while Rebecca stood on the court as Charlie looked down at her, or when Rebecca would be walking away from Charlie just as I came out of the locker. They had been talking and I was clueless about it. Charlie had made a new friend and I didn't care enough to even notice.
"It's not about Rebecca," I said in a calmer voice. I suddenly felt guilty. I dunno why I felt guilty but somehow I just did.
"Then what did I do wrong," he asked, sounding more confused than ever. "Cause if it's not about Becca, then it must be about me."
"It's not you, Charlie," I tried to explain. I would have if I could but the only explanation that kept popping in my mind were Luke's.
"Why do you keep calling me that?" Charlie asked starting to sound annoyed again. "Why don't you call me what you've always called me?"
Unable to restrain myself anymore, I let it burst out. "Because it sounds gay, okay?" I said in a loud whisper. The words felt like I had known them all along but just refused to say them. "And I do not want to get associated with anything gay. That's just not me. I'm not a faggot and I don't want people to have any reason to think that. You can understand that, right?"
Charlie stared at me. As in, he just stared at me as the color in his face slowly started to drain away.
"You can understand that, right buddy?"
Again he just stared at me. He was so still I was starting to worry he had checked out. Just as I was about to snap my fingers in front of his face, someone called out to us.
"Done eating already?" I heard my mom ask. She was walking towards us with Mrs. C who as usual held a cup of coffee hostage in her hand. "We were just on our way to join you guys."
Mrs. C must have noticed something in our faces, "is something wrong, boys?" Underneath her words, I could hear an extra meaning, what did you do, Derek Hampton?
"Everything's fine," I said with a wide smile. I nudged Charlie indicating he should say the same, "right, bud?"
Charlie just looked blankly at me. His eyes, void of recognition. He didn't smile. He didn't frown. He didn't even blink. He just stared.
"Are you alright, Charlie?" my mom asked. "You're awfully pale." She put a hand on his neck then checked his forehead as though looking for a fever.
He looked at her and finally responded. His voice was flat though. "I'm fine, Mrs. H." He then turned to his mom, "can we go home now?"
"Sure," his mom said uncertainly. She glanced at me and without words managed to say you have a lot of explaining to do, young man. I gave her a look that said it wasn't me to which her eyes narrowed dangerously, bullshit, you can't lie to a lawyer.
"Well, my car is parked that way," my mom said to Mrs. C. They shared a brief moment that indicated they were both equally confused by what was happening. That or they knew more about what was happening than they let on.
Mrs. C nodded. "Well, it was a wonderful afternoon." Then turning to me, she added, "I will see you, later."
I tried my best to keep up a smile. I knew an interrogation would come eventually.
"See ya later," I told Charlie as he started walking away with his mom. He didn't say goodbye. He didn't even look back.
My mom didn't say anything as we walked to our car. She kept glancing at me worriedly. She obviously knew something was up and was probably just waiting for the right moment to discuss it. She decided that the time had come once we were in the car and driving out of the parking lot.
"So, you and Charlie are fighting," she began. That's my mom, great at selling things, but sometimes she lacked tact when it came to awkward topics.
"I guess," I said.
"Mind telling me what it's about?"
I shrugged. "I don't really understand it myself. Charlie's just acting weird."
"Charlie?" she said with a chuckle. "I don't think I've heard you call him that since you were four." Were we that obvious?
I paused for a while gathering my thoughts before I responded. "I kinda implied that we should stop calling each other by special names."
The car stuttered for a bit as though she had accidentally pressed the brake too hard. "Why would you say something like that?" she said carefully.
Because it sounds gay, I wanted to say. Obviously, I couldn't tell her that especially after how Charlie reacted. "I guess we just outgrew it."
"We?" she asked. "Doesn't look like Charlie's taking it very well."
I shrugged again. I noticed I had been shrugging a lot that day, something I thought I normally didn't do. "He'll grow out of it."
"But do you want him to?" Then after a dramatic pause, "do you want to?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I just mean you've called each other that for such a long time," she continued as she took a turn towards our street. "Honestly, I think it's cute. No, cute doesn't do it justice. It's special. It's something that's bonded you two for such a long time. If you suddenly take something like that out of your friendship, it could change more things than just what you call each other. Do you know what I mean?"
Why did she have to go all Dr. Friendship on me? That was one topic I did not want to discuss with my mother. I looked out to the street and watched the commercial spaces slowly turn into residential ones. When the silence had already been long enough that it would seem I was ignoring her, I responded. "I guess."
We were quiet for awhile. I could tell she wanted to say more but was probably just giving me time to think. I also knew that she was purposely driving slower than usual because she knew that this conversation would be over as soon as we got home. Part of me was relieved that it would be over soon. Another part of me wanted to not go home at all.
I mean what was the big deal really? Charlie was still Charlie whether I called him that or Big C. Why couldn't everyone else understand that? Luke? Andrew? My mom? Charlie? Most especially, Charlie. Why couldn't he understand it? He was my best friend and brother. He was supposed to understandthings like that. That's what brothers did.
Next thing I knew we were driving into our garage. My mom stopped the car and neither of us made a move to get out. I was just sort of gazing blankly at the lawn. My mom was the one who broke the silence.
"You know I'll always love you no matter what, don't you?" she said. It was no more than a whisper but every syllable had enough force in it to tell me that she every word was meant.
"Yeah," I said still watching the grass grow.
"So will your father," she added. "You're his only son. He'll love you no matter what."
Just then, I saw a tiny grasshopper skip across the yard. It lunged into the air and melted into the grass with each graceful landing. It just vanished into the background of the lawn-world. No one expecting anything from it. Nothing in the world to worry about. Just hopping along among the birds and the bees. Smelling the flowers when he wanted. Eating and drinking what he wanted. At that moment, I wondered how life as a grasshopper was like – a traveler in the world experiencing freedom at its best.
I also wondered if grasshoppers had any sense of family. If mommy and daddy hoppers took care of their baby hopper. And if baby hopper had to do as he was told and behave as he was expected. I turned to my mom and gave her the best smile I could manage. "Of course he will."
She smiled apparently satisfied that we had agreed on something. "Are you ready to go in?"
I nodded to her and we left the car at the same time. As I walked alongside her to our door, I turned around to look for the grasshopper, certain that at any moment it would be hopping about to its next big adventure.
I almost gave up looking for it until the corner of my eye caught sight of something at the edge of the lawn. Having perfect vision, I could make it out even across the yard.
Underneath a hedge, in the shade of the leaves, almost camouflaged in the shadows, a frog was sitting very still. It was looking intent at me. I was quite certain it was. Its large, slimy eyes followed me as I moved towards our door.
From its oily lips thrashed the single leg of a grasshopper. It croaked with pleasure and in one swallow, the grasshopper was no more.
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