Charlie

by Hamen Cheese

Part Four of Four

Chapter 28: The Forgotten Door (Part One)

I was eleven when the world ended for me. It happened at home, a place I had always felt safe, a place I had always felt loved.

Charlie was busy excavating the deep recesses of his nose with an index finger. I watched with morbid fascination as his face screwed up in concentration trying to reach that one annoying booger that eluded him despite his most sincere efforts. Technically, we were supposed to be watching the movie on the television but the plot unfolding in my living room seemed far more interesting.

"You know that's gross, right?" I asked him.

He pulled out his finger and sniffed as though hoping he could just inhale it somewhere it would not bother him anymore. "Well, how else do you expect me to get it out?"

"I don't know. Maybe use a tissue?" I laughed.

"It's the same thing," he said. "I'd still have to use my finger."

"At least you won't be touching it."

"It's my booger," he shrugged. "What do I care if I touch it?"

I shook my head in dismay. "Oh, Big C."

"Hey!" he laughed. "You're the one who invited me over here. If you don't like what I'm doing then I can leave."

I sighed, shaking my head. "It seems all my efforts to turn you into a proper young gentleman are in vain."

"Now you're starting to sound like my mother," he sniffed in disdain. "And last time I checked, a proper young gentleman did not wear a Chicago Bulls jacket everywhere he went, even under the sweltering sun."

"Big C, what eleven year old uses the phrase sweltering sun for crying out loud?" I laughed.

"I do so deal with it," he said as he gave me a push which ended up pushing him away from me instead. "So, your dad coming home later?"

"Yep," I said excitedly. I only saw my dad once or twice a week because he was always so busy with the construction work he did. His work always brought him to different parts of the country but he always found the time to come home. He also always brought me a present from wherever he was working last. But it wasn't just the present I looked forward to. I loved my dad and seeing him was more than enough of a present for me. "He's coming home later tonight. You and Mrs. C are coming for dinner right? My mom's gonna cook spaghetti."

"Does it have a lot of meatballs?"

"Lots and lots of meatballs," I smiled.

"Sure," he said with a smile that didn't quite reach his ears.

"What's wrong?" I asked. Charlie had never been unhappy with meatballs. He had never been unhappy with food in general.

He chewed his lips as if he was thinking whether he should tell me.

"You know you can tell me anything, right Big C?"

"Yeah," he replied quickly. "It's just that… You know, it's probably nothing."

"Come on Big C," I said. "You can tell me. What's wrong?"

He remained silent for a while until he finally took a deep breath, as if he had come to a conclusion. "Okay, don't take this the wrong way because I don't mean anything bad by it, alright? It's just… your dad."

"My dad?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied simply.

"Well, what about my dad?" I asked.

"I dunno," he said as he scratched his head. "It's like he sometimes looks at me weird."

"Looks at you weird?" I asked smiling.

"See, you're not gonna take me seriously."

"I am taking you seriously," I said, trying but probably failing to keep a straight a face.

"I dunno," he sighed. "When I'm over here having dinner with you guys the last few times, it's like he's always watching me, as if he was waiting for me to make a wrong move or something."

"Now you're just being paranoid," I laughed. "And, yes, Big C. I know what paranoid means."

"You sure you do?" he taunted which earned him a punch on the shoulder. We laughed about it for a bit before he picked up the plastic DVD case of the movie we had been watching. I had found it when I was looking through some of my old stuff. I figured it might have belonged to my mom and had somehow found its way to a box of my belongings. She probably thought it was an old game or something. "So what's the deal with this movie anyway?"

"I dunno," I shrugged. "I was just bored and I figured we'd watch for something to do."

"I never figured you for the sappy type, Hero," he said as he flipped to the back of the case to read the description again. He probably read it three times already so I really did not know if he was looking for something to change or what. "I mean this movie just screams romance." He pinched his nose like the very thought of it was making him want to sneeze uncontrollably.

"Yeah," I swallowed heavily as I turned back to the screen. "Well, we could do with a little more exposure to this kind of stuff." I wasn't really watching of course. It was more like staring blankly at it while my eyes occasionally peeked sideward at the far more interesting thing to watch near me.

Charlie once again started drilling a larger hole into his nose. He was biting down on his lower lip and scrunching his face as though nothing else in the world deserved his attention more than the task of picking his nose. His lips were slightly moist as he licked them and they glistened in the few beams of light that were trickling through the open windows.

Stop it, I told myself. I didn't fully understand what I was going through other than the fact that things had been rather strange recently. Actually, it might be better to say that I had been feeling rather strange things. I wasn't completely daft at the age of eleven. I knew all about puberty from classes at school and about the changes that we undergo as we enter our teenage years. I also knew of the attraction that would develop in us towards the opposite sex (which unerringly resulted in a collective ewww resonating throughout the class).

But of course, I didn't utter ewww like everyone else. Because unlike everyone else in my age group who found the very idea of being attracted to someone completely, utterly, and despicably disgusting, I had already felt it. If I was really honest with myself, I had been feeling it for quite awhile. I knew exactly how it felt to look at a person and have an unbridled desire to run my fingers across her lips.

Except it wasn't a her.

"Hello?" Charlie said as he snapped his boogey-laced fingers in front of me. "Earth to Hero, come in Hero?"

"What?" I asked as I blinked at him several times.

"You've been staring at me for the last five minutes," he laughed. "I don't, like, have a booger on my cheek or something, do I?"

"No," I replied. "Your cheeks are fine. They're perfect."

He looked at me with the faintest, softest smile playing on his lips. I felt the breath in my lungs catch, as though all the air had been pushed out of the room. Charlie's eyes bored into mine as if he was trying to look deeper, trying to read my thoughts, hoping to find something he was searching for there. Charlie's eyes always had an amazing look about them that gave the impression that he was seeing more things than anyone else could ever see. From the moment I saw him in that sandbox, peering at the sand trickling from his white plastic shovel, I knew that he always saw the world differently from anyone else.

"Hero," he said in a very soft voice. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I said in just as soft a voice. When I realized how I sounded, I straightened up and began fanning myself with one side of my jacket. "Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?"

"Here," he said as he shifted behind. "Turn your back to me."

"What?" I laughed but nonetheless did as he said.

I almost jumped across the room when I felt his fingers on the back of my neck. They were soft, tender and sent goose bumps sailing across my skin. He pulled gently back separating the jacket from my neck. His hands went to either side of my shoulders as he separated the fabric of my Chicago Bulls jacket from my skin. He tugged it down gently, pulling down along the sleeves as the cool air ran across my back. When his hands reached the end of my shirt sleeves, it felt like electricity shot through my arms giving the impossible experience of being numb with stillness yet sensitive to the touch at the same time.

"There," he said as he finally managed to pull my jacket completely off. He folded it in his arms as though intending to wrap himself in it and take it home. "I finally managed to get you out of this silly thing." He laughed but then quickly grew concerned. "Hero, you okay? You looked flushed."

I looked at him; unable to understand how he could not have felt the tingling sensations that ran between our skins, how he did not feel the vibrations his fingers brought out in me. I frowned at him, "I look like a toilet?"

"What?" he asked with bulging eyes before breaking out in uncontrollable laughter. He was writhing all over the floor as his loud laughs echoed across the room.

"What?" I asked in return as he kept laughing.

"Hero, flushed doesn't always have something to do with the toilet," he said between breaths.

"Well what does it mean then?" I said as I gave him a smile. I enjoyed seeing him having so much fun even if it was at my expense.

"Well," he said as he finally managed to control his ragged breaths. "It could mean like glowing or blushing."

"Well, why didn't you just say that?" I asked with a laugh.

"Well, sorry," he said with a playful tone. "I didn't realize I was talking to a two year old. Would you like me to use the word potty and poo-poo also?"

"You did not just call me a baby," I laughed as I reached over. Charlie tried to get out of my reach but he wasn't quick enough. In a short amount of time, I had him in a headlock with one arm while my free hand was delivering some well-earned noogies.

"No!" he said. "Hero!"

"Not till you say sorry," I said as I swapped tactics and started tickling him instead.

"Hero! Stop!" he yelled in delight. "Stop tickling me!"

"Say sorry!" I laughed.

"Okay!" he yelled. I gave him a little breathing room though I didn't release him quite yet. "I'm sorry you have the vocabulary of a slug." He laughed as I renewed my tickling assault. "I'm sorry you look like a toilet."

"That's not an apology!" I shouted as I tickled him even more.

"Hero! Save me! Save me!" he begged with laughter, which meant he'd had as much as he could take.

I stopped tickling him and loosened my grip. I sat back down on the floor and leaned back against the couch, quite as out of breath as Charlie. His head was resting on my leg as my arms rested across his chest. He was taking deep steadying breaths and it looked like he was still trying to keep himself from laughing. "Now, who's looking flushed," I taunted.

He laughed and looked up at me. Again, it felt like all the air in the room had left as he laid down there on the floor, his head cradled in my arms and legs. I had a strange desire to run my fingers though his hair. "You… are… bad…" he gasped out.

"Not as bad as you," I said as we continued looking at each other, him looking up at me while I watched over him. I licked my lips suddenly, feeling like they'd gone dry. He licked his lips also as if he was experiencing the same thing.

Then suddenly, he sat upright as if a bolt of electricity shot through him.

"You okay, Big C?" I asked concerned.

"Yeah," he replied out of breath. I had a feeling the catch in his voice was caused by something more than the tickling session I gave him.

He leaned back against the couch and stared blankly at the movie like I had earlier. We sat there in silence, seeing yet not seeing the scenes play before us. Charlie's hand was pressed against the rug, inches from mine. I wanted more than anything at that moment to reach over and just hold it in my own.

I liked Charlie. I knew that much. What I did not know or perhaps understand was how much. We were best friends. Best friends were supposed to have a degree of closeness that surpassed the bonds of ordinary friends. We were like brothers, not in the sense of familial relations but more to do with that intense, deep desire to protect the other, making sure that they were always okay and well. We were… we were something else.

"What do you think it's like?" he asked suddenly.

"What do I think what's like?"

"To kiss someone," he said. I followed his eyes and realized that the screen was showing two people kissing. But rather than feeling appalled by what I saw, I felt myself becoming curious. The two characters kissing looked so focused on what they were doing. It was as if nothing else mattered in the world to them.

"I don't know," I replied. "I've never kissed someone, at least not on the lips."

"Me neither," he said.

Again, we entered a period of silence. The two young characters on the screen sounded like they were arguing between tears. As far as I could tell, the guy was saying he had to go. He had to leave for her safety and the safety of everyone else they loved. She was begging him not to go, to stay. They could run away together if he wanted because she didn't want to be separated from him a moment longer. He insisted that they couldn't, not until they were older, not until he could support her. He promised that he would return for her when the time was right. She in turn promised him that she would wait for that time, even if it took years, even decades. She would wait forever because she loved him.

"I don't see what the fuss is about," Charlie finally said, though his voice lacked conviction in it, as though he himself understood that a kiss was more than just lips touching.

"Me neither," I replied in the same tone.

Once more, we fell into silence, but this time I could not bring myself to pay any attention to what was happening in the movie. My heart was beating so fast it felt like it was going to explode. My fingers felt like they were itching to do something, anything to keep myself busy and distracted.

I glanced to my left to look at Charlie from the corner of my eye. He was also doing it though perhaps not as discretely as I did. Whenever we would catch each other at it, we would smile shyly and return to staring at the television screen but then moments later would be looking at each other again.

I wanted a kiss. I wanted to know how it felt for those two people on the screen, to whom nothing else seemed to matter. More than that, I did not want to kiss just anyone. I wanted it to be Charlie.

"Big C," I said, my voice shook in my nervousness. It wasn't my proudest moment but it was the best I could manage.

"Yeah?" he whispered.

"We're best friends right?" I asked.

"Yeah," he whispered again.

"So as best friends, we can keep secrets, right?"

"What secrets?"

"I mean… you wouldn't tell anyone if I… you know… I mean…"

"What?"

"I mean… if I tried to kiss you…?"

"Kiss me?" he asked. He didn't sound repulsed by the idea. He sounded more curious… almost hopeful.

"I mean you're curious aren't you? And I'm curious. So maybe we can help each other out."

"I suppose," he said.

"You okay with this?" I asked.

"Yeah," he whispered once more, licking his lips again and leaving them parted just slightly. "I guess I am."

"Yeah," I said as I started leaning forward. "Just as friends," I said as if that made any sense, as if it would be okay if that clause was inserted there.

"Just as friends," he whispered as my lips touched his. It was wet and warm and sent shivers throughout my body. Our lips parted and closed, trapping each other in a clumsy, unsynchronized dance. It was by far the most awkward thing I had ever done. But also the most amazing.

"What the hell is going on in here!" came a loud voice from behind us. It startled Charlie and me apart, each of us quickly wiping our lips with the back of our arms as though to remove any evidence of what we had done.

"Dad," I said nervously. I looked up at him, standing there is his familiar business suit, his tie loosened as though he'd just been getting ready to change. "You're home early."

I had never seen my dad look so angry. There was no smile camped on his lips, or an excited air about him that made me want to just run to him and give him a hug. Instead, the lines on his face were taut as though they had been stretched with wires. His shirt seemed unable to control his body and he seemed somehow… bigger. I looked a lot like my dad according to people (except my hair, which was the same as my mom's). I didn't mind because he was handsome and well built and "everything a guy should be." I could easily imagine looking like him years into the future. It never bothered me before. But at that moment, I wondered if I ever in my entire life could look so scary. His eyes were narrowed to slits, first towards Charlie, then me. It suddenly felt like Charlie's paranoia was justified. My father's perfect teeth were clenched as if he was barely able to contain the scream tearing at his lungs.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Hampton," Charlie said meekly.

Then my dad lost it. "Don't you talk to me, you faggot!" he shouted, before turning to glare at me. "And you, you want to become like him? Is that it? You want to become a faggot too?"

"Dad," I said, my voice sounding pained.

"You want to know what happens to faggots?" he asked as he walked briskly towards me. I flinched as he extended his arm but instead of hitting me, he grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip and yanked me to my feet.

"Dad," I begged as he dragged me from the living room towards my room. Charlie sat up, looking unsure if he should follow or not. I couldn't blame him. My dad looked terrifying.

"No son of mine will be a faggot if I have anything to say about it," he muttered more to himself than me.

"Dad, what are you gonna do?" I asked after he threw me onto my bed before slamming the door to my room and locking it.

"Making sure you turn out straight," he said as he looked around at the assortment of things I had in my room. He walked over to my desk and took a piece of metal, an old memento he had given me – a bent pipe that was the only thing that had stood between him and death at a construction site. It had in its one glorious moment prevented several tons of concrete blocks toppling over and completely crushing my father. "There's no faggot blood in my side of the family. And I'm making sure no son of mine turns out to be a faggot even if I have to beat it the hell out of you."

I grasped my bed sheets tightly when I understood what he said. "Dad, please…" He reached over and grabbed my shirt. He pushed me face down against the bed. And pulled my shorts downs, mercilessly. No, this couldn't be happening, I thought. This was my father, the father who loved me. He wouldn't do something like this. He wouldn't punish me this way. I screamed when the metal slapped against my skin like a baseball bat aiming hard for a ball. "Daddy! No! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" I begged as the metal slammed again and again.

"Not yet, you're not!" my father responded as he swung the pipe again and again. It was bent sharply in some places and I could feel its edges digging into my skin.

There was a loud pounding on my door, as though someone was desperately trying to get in. "Hero! Hero!" came Charlie's voice.

Hearing Charlie call me Hero must have incited my father into a bloodlust as the strikes became harder, faster.

I screamed. I begged. I apologized. I did anything and everything I could think of to stop my father from hurting me. My legs felt like they were going to fall off at any moment. Buckets of tears leaked from my eyes and drained into my bed as my pleas fell on deaf ears.

"No, Mr. Hampton!" Charlie screamed as he pounded on the door as though he would break it down even if he'd lose his hands in the process. "Please! Stop!"

"No son of mine is a faggot," my father said like a mantra. "Do you want to know what it's like being a faggot? Is that it? Do you want to know what faggots do? Is that what it will take?"

"No, dad," I begged. I felt weak, drained, as though I could at any moment just fall asleep. But I couldn't. I didn't know what would happen if I passed out, not with Charlie so close and with my father. I needed to stay awake. I needed to make sure he would be okay. "Please…"

"This is what it's like to be a faggot," he screamed, his throat hoarse as he suddenly thrust the jagged pipe up a place where it should never, ever go.

I screamed louder than I ever had as pain wracked me from inside. My father pushed my face down onto the bed to muffle my screams as I felt the pipe moving, touching things it never should have. It was pain unlike anything I had ever imagined, ever thought possible. And just when I thought I couldn't take it anymore, that I had to give up because everything I'd tried had failed, it was gone. The pipe was pulled out and I heard it fall with a thud on the floor.

I felt my father's breath near my ear. "That," he whispered, "is what it's like to be a faggot. Are you a faggot, son?"

I wanted to say no. I wanted to say anything that would make all the pain go away. But I couldn't. I didn't have the strength as I lay there, sweating and shaking. I wanted to give up – to black out and hopefully die.

And then I heard Charlie crying out. Despite the darkness trying to claim me, I pulled back. I fought against it knowing I couldn't give up. Not yet, I said. Not yet.

And I might have imagined it in my delusion but I could have sworn that someone, someone with my voice, answered me back. No, the voice agreed in a cocky, confident, almost arrogant tone. Not yet.

I opened my eyes and turned my head. My father had opened the door. He was shouting something at Charlie who was flinging his arms madly towards my father as if he couldn't find enough places to hit. But his thrusts made no effect whatsoever as my father held tightly to one of Charlie's arms, grasping it as though he wanted more than anything to break it at that moment. Charlie was crying, yelling, and beating his arms against my father as if his life depended on it.

My father reached over to my desk and picked up a trophy, an old prize for a basketball competition. He turned it upside down as though he was going to beat Charlie with it.

"No," I said. My voice was no more than a whisper but something about it must have been strong because both my father and Charlie stopped frozen.

"What?" my father demanded.

I stared up at him. No smile. No pleading look. Just a hard, intense desire to make myself heard. "I said no."

They both stared at me as if neither of them could comprehend what I was saying. And suddenly, the sound of ringing filled the air. My father dropped Charlie onto the floor and reached into his pant pocket to pull out his phone.

"Hello. John? Yes, I've been expecting your call for days," he said as he made his way out of the room. At some point he laughed before his voice was completely cut off but the slamming of a bedroom door.

Charlie rushed to close the door to my room and lock it. He took a few steps back and stared at it as if expecting my father to break through it at any moment.

I winced and grabbed my head when a sudden pain pierced through my head like a nail imbedded itself into my mind.

"Hero," Charlie said somberly as he knelt next to my bed. His tear stained eyes seemed to roam all over my fragile body. "You're bleeding badly. We have to get you to the hospital."

"No," I said but this time without the hardness or edge in my voice moments earlier. It actually sounded like I was a completely different person. "I'm fine. We need to get you out of here. I need to get you safe."

"Hero," he said, his voice cracking. "You're really hurt."

I shook my head vigorously, which made the room my spin. "I'm fine. We just need to go… away. Somewhere far away." Somewhere where my father couldn't reach Charlie.

"Hero…" Charlie pleaded.

"No, Big C," I said as my mind worked furiously for somewhere, anywhere where Charlie would be safe. He wouldn't be safe at his house, not without Mrs. C home yet. I knew walls would never hold my father back. "Please Big C."

"But Hero, you're really hurt."

"I'm fine," I said as I struggled to get up. "Just help me a bit okay. And can you get me something to wear? Please, Big C. Do this for me."

He looked pale as a ghost. His eyes were pleading as though he was fighting not to just drag me to a hospital. But somehow that felt like the wrong thing to do. As if it was even more dangerous to let anyone know. "Okay," he whispered. He went to my dresser and pulled out a clean pair of pants and briefs.

With a little difficulty, I managed to put them on. Any stretching of my skin seemed to inflame the recent wounds inflicted on my behind.

"It's bleeding through," Charlie said as he looked at my pants from behind. "I can see blood on the pants."

"I need something to cover it with," I said.

"Your jacket," Charlie said. "It's not made of cloth so it might not show."

Charlie made a move to go to the door but I reached out and stopped him. "Wait."

"What?" he asked.

"Be careful," I said. I knew they were empty words but my father was still out there. I didn't know if he had already left his room.

"I will," he said as he continued towards the door. He stared at it apprehensively for a few moments before taking a few deeps breaths and unlocking it. The sound of the door unlocking echoed in the empty room and we both waited to see if anything would happen. When nothing did, he turned the knob and looked out into the hallway. "Looks clear," he told me before he went out and disappeared from my sight.

I struggled to get up. I wanted to reach the mirror in my room. When I saw my reflection, I almost jumped back in fright. I might have if my legs weren't so sore. If Charlie was pale, it was nothing compared to my complexion. It looked like all the blood had drained out of my face. My eyes were sunken, dark, and haunted. It looked like I had died and come back to life, but only partially.

"I got it," Charlie said as he re-entered the room. "Hero?"

"Yeah, give it to me," I said as I struggled to walk towards him. My steps were slow and labored but I could manage them. I wrapped the jacket around my waist and checked my back on the mirror. It looked like I had just taken it off due to the heat and no blood was curling through the fabric. "Let's go."

With Charlie's help, I managed to get out into the hallway. I could still hear my father's voice in his bedroom, which meant he was still talking to John or whoever it was. I didn't know for how long but we needed to leave as quickly as possible.

I felt a little of my strength return when we left the house. The sun and air seemed to revitalize me, even just a little. It was as if I had spent the last few years in the dark of an enclosed room. "My bike," I told Charlie.

"We really should call my mom," Charlie said.

"No," I said. She would want us to wait there. It wouldn't be safe. "My bike, Big C."

"You can't ride your bike like that," Charlie said.

"I have to try."

He kept pleading with me but in the end relented. We didn't have much time to waste. We needed to get away.

I tried getting onto my bike. But each time I tried extending my leg over the seat, a terrible pain wracked my stomach and back. Biting down on my lips, I forced my leg over the seat and immediately fell over in pain.

"Hero," Charlie said as I sprawled onto the ground. "We're going to the hospital now. You've got to listen to me."

"No," I said shaking my head. Why couldn't he understand? The hospital wasn't safe. Nowhere was safe from my father. Only one place was safe. Only one place was untouched and beyond his reach. "We need to go to The Spot."

"The Spot?" he asked in surprise. "Hero, you can't ride a bike."

"Then we'll walk," I said as I struggled to stand up. Charlie helped me, even though he was reluctant to do so. "Big C, please."

I could see the conflict in his eyes. He felt torn. I knew a part of him wanted to take me to the hospital and get checked. But I knew my father well enough to know that his job allowed him a lot of contacts, people he called and talked to all the time. Somehow, all this would end up becoming worse if people found out. Somehow, I knew instinctively that even if my wounds would be attended to, Charlie wouldn't be safe if I went to the hospital. He would be taken away, far away from me where I would never find him again.

"Big C," I said in as soft a voice I could manage. "Please. I'm asking you this one time to help me, to come to The Spot with me. I need this. Please."

He closed his eyes as though he'd finally decided against his better judgment. "Okay," he said. "Okay. We'll go to The Spot."

And so we walked. It seemed to take forever. I was leaning heavily on Charlie most of the time and I felt guilty putting him through that. But I needed to make sure he was safe. It was the only important thing left for me to do.

At first, many cars passed us and I worried that one of them would be my father's. I worried that he would come and take Charlie away from me and I would be helpless to stop him. I didn't think I could live with that. It would have been a far worse thing than all the pain he inflicted on me with that pipe. But after awhile, the cars just dwindled in number until there were none left. The road to The Spot, though well paved, was hardly travelled. The two of us walked in silence, me mostly leaning on Charlie for strength.

Every now and then, a splitting headache would pierce through my head. It felt like my mind was being ripped apart and I would sometimes ask myself what was happening. But then I would see Charlie next to me, sweating and panting, but nonetheless supporting me. I would remember where we were running off to and everything we were running away from.

"We're almost there," Charlie would say, even though we still had quite some distance to go. It helped me I suppose to realize that he would come with me, to do something so insane just because I asked.

When we finally reached the gates of the old abandoned park, Charlie asked if I wanted to rest in the old stone gazebo. A part of me wanted to since I felt so exhausted I might just collapse at any moment. But the more of the musty, humid air of the forest I smelled, the stronger my resolve became to reach our destination.

And so, I pushed myself more to reach our special place. I winced several times as the uneven path added stress to my legs and sore skin. My pants felt moist with blood but I didn't relent. I pushed and pushed until the loud echoes from the Iron Graveyard reached my ears.

I collapsed on the bench as soon as I touched it. I felt Charlie raise my head, and I felt a cushion placed under my head. I opened my eyes briefly to see Charlie watching over me the same way I watched over him earlier. I realized he was using his legs to support me.

"Hero," he said. His voice was concerned and I could still hear a lingering doubt there in his voice as though wondering if he really did do the right thing.

Safe, I whispered as my eyes drooped. Safe. And I fell into the darkness.

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