Part 3 – Wendy
10 Months Before Impact Day
I knocked on the door to Mark’s study, heard a gentle grunt of approval, and let myself in. He was sitting at his desk, both monitors suspiciously turned off, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. I shut the door behind me.
“Hey, got a minute to talk?”
“For you? Always,” he replied pleasantly, though he looked a little impatient.
“Okay, well, I kind of have a problem,” I began, treading carefully. What I was going to tell him was a big deal for me, and I didn’t necessarily trust him not to use that information against me.
“What sort of problem?”
“It’s sort of a… girl problem,” I said vaguely. He immediately got that uncomfortable expression that men get around anything to do with feminine hygiene. Probably could have chosen my words better.
“Well, I’m no expert, but I’ll help however I can,” he said carefully.
“Not like that,” I told him, turning a little red. “I mean like… like a boy problem, except, well, she’s not a boy.”
“Oh!” he said, sounding immediately relieved. “Well, that I can probably help a little more with.”
“You don’t have a problem with that?” I asked, a little surprised. Maybe Sadie’s reaction had put me on edge.
“Why should I? It’s perfectly natural,” he said easily.
I breathed a sigh of relief, realising for the first time what it really meant to be queer. A constant question of safety, trust and respect. Never again could I assume people wouldn’t turn my love into something ugly.
“Well, that makes that part a lot easier, I guess,” I said.
“I’m assuming the issue of gender is not the problem,” he probed.
“No, it’s not that. This girl…”
“Might I ask her name?”
“Oh. Um, Rachel,” I said, blushing again.
“From your jujitsu classes?”
“You remember that?” I asked, surprised again.
“I do pay attention, you know,” he said, with mock offence.
“As I recall, her family situation was a little complex. Is that part of the problem?”
I actually didn’t know what to say to him. It was almost like he was having the conversation for me.
“It’s most of the problem,” I said. “It’s why I’ve been sneaking out at night. She can’t leave, and isn’t allowed guests, so I have to sneak in once her mum is asleep.”
“That seems less than ideal.”
“You’re telling me. Unfortunately, her mum has gotten even worse lately, and she’s locking the doors at night, so I can’t even sneak in. So, we don’t even have any way of seeing each other.”
“I am beginning to see the problem, but not the solution.”
I took another deep breath, knowing the next part was the tricky part. I didn’t want him to feel like the only reason I was talking to him was because I wanted something, even though that was technically true.
“She doesn’t have a phone, so I can’t even talk to her,” I said slowly.
“And now I see where I come in,” he said, sounding amused.
“Sorry. I really don’t think of you as just a walking bank account, I just don’t know who else could help with this, and there aren’t a lot of people I can tell.”
He smiled reassuringly, folding his hands in his lap. I looked down at the floor, embarrassed.
“I understand, it’s okay,” he told me. “I take it you haven’t spoken to Aidan or Liz about this?”
“Fair enough. They are good friends, but this is a sensitive topic. I assure you, I will maintain the utmost discretion on the topic.”
“Thank you,” I said meekly.
Mark spun his chair around and slid it sideways across the room, stopping in front of a filing cabinet. He pulled a key from his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and pulled out a small, plastic-wrapped box.
“Here,” he said, tossing it to me. I snatched it out of the air.
It was a box containing a brand new, unopened phone. Nothing particularly fancy, but far from the cheapest model out there.
“You just happened to have this lying around?” I asked, incredulous. There was no way things were going this well.
“I’ll thank you not to repeat this information to anyone, but I keep a small supply of them,” he told me, in a hushed voice. “Occasionally, I need to make calls from numbers other than my own. Mine can be an awkward profession, at times.”
“My lips are sealed,” I said, looking down at the box again. It still felt too easy.
“Then we have an accord,” he said. He reached into his pocket again, pulled out his wallet, and handed me a small wad of cash. “For your first credit recharge. And if your own phone bill happens to be a bit higher for a little while, I might just look the other way.”
“Wow,” I said, still waiting for the rug to be swept out from under me. “Um, thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Charlie, I love you as my own daughter. It is my genuine pleasure to be able to help you when you need it,” he said sincerely.
Why didn’t I feel this two months ago? Was my depression really that bad?
“You’re amazing,” I said, blinking back tears. “Thank you.”
I wrapped my arms around him, hugging him fiercely, and he gently hugged me back. Then he shooed me out of his room, claiming he had a lot of work to get back to, and that I had a girlfriend to spend time with.
* * *
That night, I arrived at Rachel’s with a slight spring in my step, almost giddy that I got to see her again. It wasn’t just the phone I was excited to give her, though that obviously didn’t hurt my mood at all.
I rapped on her window, which she’d left slightly open. I added a quiet ‘psst’ to get her attention.
“Hey,” she said, her face appearing in the window. She reached out of the window with her hand, and I grabbed it happily.
“I brought you a present,” I told her, producing the box with a flourish.
“What? How did you…”
“Mark was surprisingly cool about it all,” I said, smiling. She took the box and managed to squeeze it through the window, turning it over in her hands a few times.
“I know it won’t be as good as being in the same room, but…”
“But I won’t feel anywhere near as isolated,” she said, reaching out and grabbing my hand again. “You have no idea how much this means.”
“I have some idea,” I said, squeezing her hand.
“Thank you, Charlie.”
“Eh, it was mostly Mark,” I confessed, turning a little red.
“No, you made this happen,” she insisted. “And it means a lot to me. It really does.”
Though she kept smiling at me, and didn’t break eye contact, her free hand kept fiddling with the box, turning it over and tracing the lines in the plastic wrap. I laughed.
“You really want to open it, don’t you?”
“Opening is the best part,” she admitted, embarrassed.
“You’re supposed to say talking to me is the best part,” I said, with mock offence.
“That’s totally what I meant,” she said, sticking her tongue out, then biting her lip and smiling at me. It was like an arrow right to my heart.
“Go ahead and open it,” I said. “Oh, and pass me the rubbish. We don’t want your mum getting suspicious.”
“Good thinking,” she said before ripping off the packaging greedily.
I watched as she meticulously took apart the box, then removed all the different components one by one. I could tell by the hungry look in her eyes she wanted to take the phone apart just to see if she could put it back together again, but she was resisting. She grinned at me like a kid on Christmas.
“We’ll find a way to make this work,” I promised her.
“I know,” she said, reaching her hand back out to grab mine. Then she stopped and pulled it back in, an excited look on her face. “Oh yeah! I got something for you, too.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised.
“I’ve been working on some of the stuff we took,” she explained. “I managed to figure out how to make a few things work better for you.”
“Hey, don’t sound so surprised. I can be helpful,” she said, crinkling her nose and frowning at me. It was entirely too cute.
“You are indispensable,” I told her, trying hard to keep a straight face.
“That’s more like it. Okay, so for starters, I modified this bulletproof vest a little, so it would fit you better.”
She passed it through the window to me, and I held it up to the moon to get a better look at it. Already I could tell that it was lighter than the one I’d been wearing, and it did look like it was more suited to my body shape.
“Wow,” I said, genuinely impressed.
“Also, any chance you know how to fire a pistol?” she asked.
“No, and I don’t want to.”
“Well, you might wanna reconsider that, because these rubber bullets will make things a lot easier for you,” she said, passing a box through the window. I took the box and looked at it.
“They’re like a really hard punch,” she said. “At worst, there may be some broken bones or internal bleeding, but nothing worse than what you’ve already done.”
I cringed at the thought. Grievous bodily harm had never been my intention, it had just been my only option.
“I am trying to avoid that, you know,” I told her.
“And I’m trying to avoid you being locked in a cellar and cut up for fun,” she said bluntly. “And speaking of getting cut up, I also modified these for you.”
The next thing she passed out to me were was a pair of high-grade armguards, a lot nicer than my own ones. Instead of foam, they were a hard plastic, with a sort of ridged texture, and a thin layer of padding underneath.
“They should be knife-proof, and the ridges should stop a knife from sliding off and cutting you anyway. It’s kind of crude, but it should do the job better than what you have been using.”
“Oh, and also this,” she added, passing me a limp pile of black fabric. “It’s a harness, but I made a few changes so you can store a bunch of your stuff on it, so you can take more with you.”
“My very own Q,” I said proudly, blown away by how resourceful she was. When she wanted to do something, it was very rare that she couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. I had definitely considered the possibility that she was a real, bona fide genius.
“I just want you to be safe,” she said solemnly.
“So, tomorrow, after school, I want to teach you to shoot,” she said. The tone of her voice told me she was not going to take no for an answer. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to give it anyway.
“But if you don’t go straight home…”
“I’ll deal with that,” she said, brushing off my objection. “How much worse can she really make things?”
“I don’t want you getting into trouble for my sake,” I said.
“Charlie, it’s worth it. So let me do what I want, okay?”
I sighed. I didn’t want to agree with her, but I did want to be the sort of person who would respect the choices that she made, and the reasons she made them.
“Just promise me you’ll find a way to get away from this,” I said, gesturing towards her house.
“I do. Constantly. But she’s still my mum, and I can’t just run away,” she said. I felt my heart break a little.
“She treats you like crap. You don’t owe her your loyalty,” I protested, and I could see from the look in her eye that I’d annoyed her.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” she said, a heavy dose of finality in her voice. “And she’s family, no matter how unwell she is.”
“I just hate seeing her treat you like she does,” I said, looking down at the ground.
“I know you’re only looking out for me. But we’re both doing what we think is right, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I conceded. “I’m sorry.”
“Shit, I think I heard her,” Rachel whispered, shrinking down. “You should go.”
“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow, after school,” I whispered back.
“Okay. Goodnight, Charlie.”
“Y-yeah. G’night,” I said back awkwardly.
Next Week: Adult Supervision