All for Charli
Her hand was very warm, but still I rubbed it, not knowing any other way to help. Charli – the love of my life, lying in the hospital bed with white bandages covering her head like a mummy. It absolutely broke my heart to see her suffering, so much so that I often broke down into fits of sobbing, my head buried in her side. The nurses patted me mechanically on the back as if they understood what Charli and I had been through. How could they ever know the joy and pain of this kind of love?
I survived the explosion almost unscathed; except for a few scratches I was fine. Dr. Johnson said to call if any symptoms of head trauma appeared, like a headache or nausea, but I was immediately free for discharge. But Charli, oh, my dear Charli, her broken body needed me, and I could not leave. Doctor Johnson predicted an eighty percent chance Charli’s memory being erased because of a massive head injury. How I prayed for Charli, and how I prayed for the doctor to be correct.
I have known and loved Charli for 35 years. I first saw her at a pep-rally before a basketball game at McLaren High School. She sat alone on the bleachers. Her features resembled a Da Vinci sketch with soft, caring eyes, and perfect lips. She looked up at my scrawny, 16 year old body as I passed by her, and smiled. My heart stopped and for a moment I could not breathe. She affects me this way, even today. If she could open her eyes now, she would see, she would remember what she did not know then.
Unfortunately, her smile was not directed at me, it extended beyond for Gene, who just then ran out on the court with his team, all of them dressed in basketball warm-ups for the rally. Suddenly Gene climbed the bleachers toward us. With basketball in hand he planted a wet kiss on Charli’s lips, and everyone cheered while I stood there frozen and heavy, like the trunk of a tree. How disgusting. How disrespectful. This was my first impression of “Gene.” But I didn’t have to worry about Gene anymore, only Charli.
I looked up to see a well-dressed woman with gentle eyes.
“Mr. Robertson, is your wife allergic to any medication?”
“Only penicillin,” I lied.
“Thank you Mr. Robertson. We have all her admissions papers ready,” she said, and she extended a clipboard toward me, full of documents and forms for me to sign on Charli’s behalf. “Don’t worry about anything else right now, just sign on the lines where I have marked a red X.”
I signed all the red X’s for Carol Redwing, my realtor, just yesterday morning. I don’t know how everything could have gone so wrong. It had already been a tough buying process, one that almost didn’t go through. And you will laugh to yourself when I tell you whose home I was just about to purchase; it was Gene’s! It was the house Gene was raised in, from the time he was six, although he hadn’t lived there since we all graduated.
Gene’s parents recently passed away, within eight weeks of each other, and it was up to him to sell the home. There were not many homes like this one available in the area. It was over 100 years old. Early settlers of McLaren County built all their homes with durability in mind. Both the interior and exterior walls, fortified with three spans of adobe brick, kept the home well insulated. In the summer it remained cool inside without air conditioning, especially with the large poplar trees shading it on the west side. In winter, heat only escaped through open doors.
These homes are almost never on the market, so when Gene’s parent’s both passed away, I waited, and sure enough, after six months, a little Global Realty sign appeared in the front yard. The asking price was something ridiculous, unbelievably inflated! Gene demanded a high price. Maybe his wife wanted to keep it, perhaps even live in it, and why shouldn’t she? I’m sure he put his foot down and told her no. I’m sure it was all about the money for him. I’m sure he took no interest in her feelings.
I know this, because I know how he treated my Charli, and me, in high school. He was “Mr. Popular”, no, “Mr. Everything!” As the starting center on the basketball team, and he got away with almost anything. Oh, he fooled everyone, except me, into believing he was a great guy. In the teachers’ and coaches’ eyes he could do no wrong. But I caught him once, with Charli up against a wall, his ugly unshaven face pressing her angel cheek. One hand on the wall and the other held a fistful of her hair, twisting and pulling. Charli’s eyes were closed, and I could tell she was afraid. Gene turned his head and saw me, and mouthed, “Get lost!”
I needed this home of Gene’s. Yes, it was overpriced, but I couldn’t take the chance of any rich out-of-towners coming in and making an offer. Without reserve I offered the full asking price.
Gene didn’t know I was the buyer until after the papers were signed yesterday morning. I drove up to the home with Carol Redwing in her Cadillac to receive the homeowner’s keys from Gene; an unconventional meeting at my request. I knew he’d be surprised, no, shocked, seeing me getting out of the car. Sure, I have aged in the past 35 years, but I still look great. I’ll admit I do have an obsession, as some might say, for being fit. But it’s not for me, really. It’s always been about Charli. Sure, I may have lost my hair, but it suits my muscular form. I have an entire wall of gold medals and trophies from local body building competitions, all for Charli’s sake. I heard her say one time that muscles were the first things she noticed in a man. Of course this was a long time ago, but I never forgot.
So I get out of the car, and out of the corner of my eye I see Gene tilting his head, this way and that, trying to place me. He and his wife were just inside the covered screen porch, and although I could not hear them, I saw his wife nod with recognition. I couldn’t wait to look at Gene face to face, and seeing his ghastly reaction. I am sure many emotions filled his thick skull all at once. I wondered if he remembered the debt he owed me. I wondered if he knew I was coming to collect.
Seeing Charli for the first time that day in high school, my heart was never the same. I wanted to care for her for the rest of her life. I used to sit across from her at lunch and just listen to her voice. Sometimes she caught me staring at her, but I tried not to make her uncomfortable. I learned to avert my eyes and just listen to the sound of her voice, sweet like honey. Just listening was enough; my gift to her.
Sometimes I felt myself becoming uncomfortably close to Charli, and I didn’t want to rush into things. After all, we still had college to think about. All things must be done in their proper order. Because of circumstances that were no one’s fault, it seemed I was destined to break Charli’s heart, but only as a means to the end, keeping our relationship on track. Yes, I sensed she wanted me to ask her to prom. But as much as I wanted to take her, I felt our special relationship moving too fast. I wrote her a note explaining, and ask if she would ever forgive me. I folded the note into a small origami envelope, and slid it through the slats in her locker. I guess she couldn’t forgive me right away, because she avoided me for the next couple of weeks.
Gene and Charli seemed to be doing a lot together after that, but surely Gene knew she was only being nice to him. I didn’t want to get him worked up about it, so I thought about how I’d like someone to tell me that the girl I liked didn’t like me back. I decided to genuinely become his friend. I’d give him gradual hints in the process about Charli’s feelings for me.
As student-body president, Gene’s popularity required him to be my friend. I played along, knowing all the while we were each pawns in a game of manipulation. Hanging out in his circles improved my relationship with Charli. She was usually with the same group of friends as Gene, and when I joined their ‘elite’ club, Charli was always there, hoping I’d show her the smallest bit of affection. Ironic, now that I think about it, because today I own my own elite club, Elite Fitness, a private spa and health club.
Gene met Carol Redwing and I just outside of the covered porch, and the realization hit him that it was me who had purchased his parents’ home. He looked me directly in the eye and said, “What are you doing here?” I could see the blue veins in his neck pulse out of control. “I did not just sell my parents’ home to him!” he said to his wife, who stood there, unaffected, it seemed. “Carol!” he cried to our joint realtor, “Carol! What have we done?” But it was too late to change anything now, his portion of paperwork was already signed, and it was time to hand over the keys to my home.
I walked into my new home like a king, seeing his castle for the first time, and I drew a deep breath of the homey atmosphere inside. It was as if the scent of freshly baked bread permeated the walls, but I knew it was some kind of trick used to suede potential homebuyers. “The first thing to go must be this kitchen,” I said out loud. But when I walked into the modest bathroom with the claw foot, white porcelain bathtub, vessel sink and high tank toilet complete with pulling chain, I changed my mind. “Let me take that back – the first I will do is gut this bathroom, beginning with the toilet.” I looked at Gene and smiled. I think he wanted to hit me.
Gene wasn’t typically a violent guy in High School, but he thought it would be funny to blow up the toilets in the boys’ locker room, when he heard a stunt like that was pulled in at our rival high school in Carbondale. He talked about it all the time, like it was a big deal. I wanted him to put his money where his mouth was. “Do it, Gene.” I said.
“Yea, right. Just where would I get something to blow up toilets.”
“Pipe bomb.” I said.
His eyes got about as big as his whole face. “You can get us a pipe bomb?”
I nodded my head in confirmation.
Two weeks later, ten o’clock at night, a county detective and an FBI agent knocked at my door. Gram had to get out of bed to answer. I could see the FBI man from my open window, which was right above the front door.
“Ma’am, we are sorry to bother you at this hour, but we have reason to believe your grandson is a suspect in the high school’s locker room bombing last night.”
Surveying my bedroom, I panicked. It was a mess of wires, light explosives and simple tools. There was a greasy five-gallon bucket next to my bed, filled with assorted nuts, bolts and washers. I wanted to get rid of everything at once, and then get rid of me, but there was no escaping. I couldn’t jump out the window without breaking my bones, nor could I discard the evidence with the men standing there below my open window.
In the little room containing a small table and two chairs, I told the investigators it was all Gene; it was his idea. He planned it, and he carried it out, alone. I had nothing to do with it.
“Funny thing is,” said the detective, “Eugene said exactly the same thing about you. Yet you are the one with enough bomb paraphernalia in your bedroom to blow up an army.”
I spent the next eighteen months at McLaren School for boys. Don’t let the name fool you, it was jail, and it was bad news. I was on probation for 5 years after my release, and I was required to perform 500 hours of community service. I missed my graduation, but worst of all, I thought I’d lost my Charli.
I should have realized I could never really lose Charli. She had actually married Gene while I was at McLaren School for Boys. It wasn’t her fault, I know that. I know it was Gene who pushed her into it. He wanted to make sure she was his before I was released. The snake. But good things come to those who wait, and patience, like an obedient dog waiting for the command to chase, was mine.
“Absolutely I will not turn the key over to him!” Gene continued. “I want out of the contract, now.”
“Eugene, I can’t undo this after you both have signed everything,” said Carol Redwing. She was flitting around the table inside the home’s dining room, flipping through the contracts as if she may have missed some clause that would free Gene from the burden of this sale, to me. She put both fists down on the table and said resolutely, “The only option you have is to take him to court.”
I smiled. “Come on, Gene-“
“My name is Eugene.”
“Okay, ‘Eeyou-gene.’ Give it a rest. Give me my key.”
His wife put her hand on his shoulder and it seemed to soften him, “It’s okay, Sweetheart. Give him the key and let’s go.”
My stomach turned. That’s not what I wanted to see, but it worked. Then she looked directly in my eyes, that Da Vinci face and those full lips spoke to me for the very first time, and I knew she had done this for me. “Here you go Connor, she said. “The key is yours, the house is yours.” Her hand brushed mine as she placed it into my palm, and they left me standing there alone in my home.
“I knew she loved me. I knew it” was all I could say, over and over, as I opened the trunk of my car and carefully lifted the cardboard banana box that cradled the dynamite packed in sand. For the first time in years I felt light, and I had a plan to rescue Charli from Gene’s grasp. She had to be unhappy, she was with him against her will.
I reached up to turn off the water valve on the master bedroom toilet tank, and then flushed the remaining water. The explosives fit nicely inside. And why do it at night, you might ask? You can guess, that with the home mine now, I wanted the biggest show ever. I wanted to show Charli how deep, how loud, how expansive my love was for her. I wanted her to understand I did it all for her.
I planned to drive away from the property as if I had no part in what was about to happen, then use my converted remote control to start the five-minute timer. At the last second I changed my plan. I wanted to stay. I wanted to see the fire trucks screaming up the drive and the police cars with their blue and red lights flashing. There was no reason to run away. After all, it’s not a crime to blow up your own toilet in your own home. I parked my car half a block down the street, and then walked about one hundred yards into the hay field across the street from the home. A perfect view.
I knelt down in the alfalfa, making a nest for myself among the little purple flowers. First cross legged, and then on my knees. I wouldn’t be able to sit that way for long, so I decided it was best to stretch my legs out in front of me. Then I hit the timer button. “Five minutes!” I was giddy.
Up the driveway came a car with headlights glaring. It was Gene and Charli again. “What are they doing here?” I whispered to myself.
Gene pulled into the driveway and stopped without turning off the engine. He stepped out and headed to the front door. He knocked and waited. Then he turned around and motioned something to Charli, still in their car. He knocked again, and waited, and when no one came to the door, he reached in his pocked and pulled out a key.
“Snake!” I said to myself. Then I remembered why I was there. I might be a pyromaniac, but I was not a murderer. He entered my home, “What for?” I said out-loud. The lights in the front room went on, and then in the hallway leading to upstairs. I looked at my watch. Two and a half minutes left. Hurry up Gene! The last thing I want to do is run in there and save your life!
Then I saw Charli get out of the car. Oh, she was lovely, with a flowing blue cotton dress, and white cardigan sweater. Her legs were bare, and on her feet were sandals. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a loose twist at the back of her neck. She walked toward the front door, and that’s when I felt myself stand up and shout her name, but it was too late. She was already inside.
I tore with a forward motion toward the front door, screaming Charli’s name all the way. She was visibly startled, and stepped back outside confused, standing there like a statue.
When I reached the covered porch, I tried to get ahold of her arm, but she struggled, she fought, and she wiggled her way out of my grasp. For a moment she was free and began crying for “Eugene.” Gene heard the scuffle we made, and I saw him at the top of the stairs with a look of panic, but I held my grip around Charli, and chopped the words, “Don’t you know I am trying to save your life?” into her ear.
And then there was a flash of light. The sound was like a train smashing into the house, and in slow motion I saw plaster, beams, picture frames, and silk flowers flying through the air. Debris was hitting my whole body, and I flew backward with Charli wrapped tightly in my arms.
I woke up in a bed next to Charli’s at Mercy Hospital. “Mr. Roberts,” the nurse said to me, but I didn’t answer at first, because no one had ever called me Mr. Roberts before. My name is Connor Slade. “Mr. Roberts, you were in an accident, in an explosion. Can you tell me what your first name is?” I looked at her in disbelief. She thought it was a lack of memory, but it was astonishment. I was now Mr. Roberts.
“My name is Eugene Roberts,” I said. Then pointing to the figure in the bed next to me, “and that is my wife, Charli Roberts.” Just then, Charli’s eyes flitted, and her arm twitched, and I smiled knowing it was all for me.