Or buy time while you try to figure out what that plot is. ;)
Chapter Five - Man on the Run
On the run again. Charlie thought it was just like old times, old sucky times. He'd had to run from the law on the rare occasion since he first left home. A 19 year old with a history of violence, with very little money looking to make his way in the world can make some very bad decisions.
Charlie had spent most of his years away trying to fly the straight and narrow. He knew that someone with his history would be an easy target. Kill one person, it's easy to say he killed again if a body turns up dead.
No matter how clean a person turns out to be, it can be impossible to escape their past. The institution had declared him sane, or at least sane enough to walk out the door, but that never mattered to people.
And here he was, all his fears coming home. The worst thing he had done since he got out was to start a bar fight that ended up with a man losing a few fingers. Everyone in the bar said the guy was antagonistic, and charges weren't pressed, but there were still whispers of the crazy man snapping again. Charlie knew it was time to move on from that town.
Whenever the law got involved, Charlie would decide it was time to move on. Did it look suspcious? Maybe it did, but when the cops got involved, it always led to unpleasant questions Charlie didn't feel like asking. As long as there weren't any bodies laying in his wake, then he felt it was safe. Cops showing up to harass the guy with a history like Charlie's was the last thing he needed. People in small towns always wanted someone to blame, and the newcomer is an easy target.
Now, Charlie found himself on the run, with the cops at his heels in a not very figurative sense. With Richard back at his sister's house, Charlie was also breaking his cardinal rule as well. Several times over if one counted all the men the thing in the church basement chewed up and spat out.
As the golden light of dawn began to sneak its way through the branches surrounding Charlie, he knew he was nearing the edge of town. The mental map he had made of the forests of Kraftsbury as a kid remained as accurate as one could expect. There were a few more homes tucked away amidst the trees, and an added road cutting across to a nearby highway, but otherwise nothing much had changed.
He had paused several times as he made his escape, to listen for any pursuit. No crunch of snow, no barking dogs, not even a helicopter. Granted, Charlie doubted that the police in Kraftsbury had a chopper, but with the way his luck had begun to turn, it would not surprise him.
Charlie also listened for any pursuit from things not of the norm. Crashing through the woods in the darkness was the baddest of bad ideas. Knowing there were real creatures out there worse than what many people feared lived in the woods, worse than what people told around the campfire, only made it an even worse idea.
No strange cries not made by man or beast echoed through the trees, nor was there any sounds of pursuit made by things with asymmetrical appendages. While he was a wanted man, and stuck in the woods in the dead of winter, Charlie could not believe the good fortune of there being apparently no pursuit. He did not know why there wasn't anyone following him, and he found he didn't particularly care either.
As much as he didn't want to, once he reached the edge of town, he took a sharp turn and headed for the road. Charlie popped out right next to the Welcome to Kraftsbury sign. When he first passed through the treeline, he almost thought he had come out at the wrong spot, because he couldn't see the sign.
It wasn't until he took a step to the right that the sign came into view. His aim had been so true that he was looking at the sign straight on the side. The slender wooden frame blended into the snow and trees across the road to such an extent that it was easy to lose from that precise angle.
This was the last place Charlie wanted to be. Well, the last place after a jail cell, the electric chair, or an alien world. Maybe a few other places. But this spot was high on the list, for sure.
Standing out in the middle of a small clearing beside the main road running into town where people were clamboring for his head on a pike was not Charlie's brightest idea. The sign standing before him was a symbol to him, however. It made him decide to leave years ago, it was there when he was laid low just two days ago, and here he was again.
Such a simple thing. Most towns had them, at least ones of note, but Charlie always seemed to come back to this one at major events in his life.
Charlie walked up to the sign, and stood right next to it, running his bare hand against the rough wodden surface of the back. It had been covered with a thin layer of paint that brushed away in flakes as his hand moved over the surface.
The white flecks of paint drifted down to the ground, only to be lost in the matching snow, unless someone was to look for them.
In time, Charlie would wish he could say he had done what he was about to do without thinking about it, before he had even realised he was going to do it. That would have been a lie, however.
Charlie stared at the backside of the sign, balled up his fist and punched the spot where the paint had crumbled away from time, and neglect. The wood cracked, the paint split, and the yellowish brown fibres inside became visible once more. Splinters stuck out of the gash Charlie had created.
He punched again, and this time the wood cracked loudly and echoed in the cold morning air. A chunk of wood spun through the air and embedded in a nearby snowbank. Charlie could see the road through the hole he had created.
With one last punch, Charlie's fist took the tiny hole he had created and opened it up large enough that it passed through, almost up to his elbow. His jacket sleeve was shoved back by the wooden wall it encountered, but his arm went through the gap with little effort.
Charlie yanked his arm out of the hole, and gave himself a hasty examination. Only a few scratches were in evidence, and a splinter stuck in one of his knuckles. He yanked out out the offending piece of plant, and tossed it aside without another thought.
Taking out years of pent up aggresion on the sign that always seemed to be at the center of it all, or at the least at the edges of it all, was oddly cathartic to Charlie. He could have stood there all day, picking the sign apart splinter by splinter, plank by plank, or in one fell swoop with a raging bonfire. Instead, he decided his symbolic revenge had been meted out enough for now. He had taken enough time out of his escape attempt, and his firebug tendencies were long since buried. Although if ever there was a day to dredge them out into the open, this would come close.
"But someday, sign, someday." Charlie shook his fist in the air. "We'll meet again, and on that day one of us shall fall."
Charlie walked around the edge of the sign, looked up at it one last time, taking in the bright tones of the paint, standing out even in these early dawn hours. The backside of the sign may have been forgotten, but the front side was painted anew at least once a year. Charlie remembered helping repaint it one year for a school fundraiser, and hoped whoever had painted the big K this year would fare better in life than Charlie had.
He gave notice to the small dent in the snowbank on the left of the sign. The snow had melted, been blown around, and covered up, but the barest hint of a Charlie-shaped impression remained where he had fallen. He thought of children making snow angels in newly fallen drifts, and to his version gave the name of a snow drunk.
Once more Charlie turned his back on the sign, and headed back down the road. It was colder now, the sun was not as high, and the road was just as empty, but Charlie was stuck repeating a walk he had made years ago.
He didn't give even a hint of a glance back at the sign, as he crammed his hands deep into his pockets to keep them warm. Charlie gave the mental map of the area a check, and he knew his memory was going to run out of woods soon enough. However, he did recall that there was a town almost due west of where he was. If he stopped in Griggs, he might be able to catch a bus, or a ride from someone who wouldn't instantly turn him in.
Charlie was relunctant to venture into a town, to say the least. The alternative to the risk of being caught was spending the entire day, and probably the upcoming night, trudging through the woods in the middle of a Vermont winter. Facing up to murder charges seemed like the lesser punishment.
As his mother had taught him, Charlie darted his head from one side to the next to make sure the road was clear, and ran straight across and into the woods.
He knew the hole in the sign would give people a clue to what direction he had travelled in, he knew he had left footprints, but there was nothing he could do about the snow. As for the sign, he didn't care. It felt good, and there were only so many ways out of town, so many ways one could go. His other choice was Canada, and while that was tempting, Charlie decided to stay close to his comfort zone until he developed anything resembling a plan.
Once he was back in the woods, Charlie used the sun to keep him on track with a path heading almost due west. The rising sun warmed things up, but warmer than freezing was still pretty cold for a wide swath of temperatures.
The snow was deeper in this part of the forest, coming up halfway to Charlie's knees. It made the going slow, and cold. It was not long before his toes were almost entirely numb despite being encased within heavy boots. His pants legs were becoming wetter with each step, cold seeping into his legs.
There was no way Charlie could take several days of this. Even just a few hours was going to push it. He needed a better plan, and getting to something resembling civilisation was a major step in that. Even if it was Vermont civilisation. They had at least mastered fire by now.
If it came down to it, Charlie knew he could gather up branches and start a fire for the night, but that would be a worse idea than walking into the center of town and yelling his name at the top of his lungs. Even if those too felt more and more frozen with each breath.
As he crested a hill, the trees thinned out, and he stepped out onto a field. Looking out from the edge of the forest, Charlie looked into a valley that he knew as the town of Griggs. The entire town seemed to be situated inside a crater. No buildings were built along the edges, making the town surrounded entirely by a rim, and the forest. From where he stood, Charlie could see all the town, no building being built more than a few stories tall. To the north stood the red brick walls of the Griggs Institution for the Criminally Insane, the only thing built above the depression in the Earth.
Charlie surveyed what passed for civilisation there in the middle of nowhere, and as he did so, he felt an unexpected sensation in his coat. His phone was vibrating. Vermont may lack certain amenaties from time to time, but somehow they managed to get a strong enough phone signal to where Charlie stood.
He had forgotten he had set it to vibrate while deep within the catacombs of Kraftsbury. Charlie was surprsied he had even brought it with him down there, but force of habit kept the thing at his side. At least he had the presence of mind to set it to vibrate while skulking about in the shadows.
As the small chunk of plastic sat in his hand, sending a tingling sensation through his arm, Charlie considered not answer it. Not answering and throwing the phone deep into the woods seemed like a most prudent idea to someone on the run from the law.
The number displayed on the tiny screen was not one Charlie recognised. It also wasn't local to the area, or even the state. With every nerve in his brain screaming to do the opposite, Charlie picked up the call.
Charlie knew he shouldn't. He knew he should turn off the phone. Smash it on the ground. Make sure it couldn't be traced. He knew how incredibly dumb he was being, but he accepted the call anyways.
He remained silent as he held the phone to his ear. For what seemed like an eternity, the only noise he could hear was static. There may be signal out here, but the signal was threatening to drop if Charlie sneezed wrong.
His finger moved towards the small red button to hang up, when a voice floating through the ether, sounding like it came drifting up from the bottom of a well.
There was still the urge to push that button and get on with his escape before any lead he had accumulated disappeared, but he had come this far. Charlie decided he may as well ride this train until it crashed.
"Hello?" he said back. Charlie tried lowering his voice, but all he succeeded in was sounding like a frog croaking out his words. He decided to cease any further attempts.
From the farthest reaches of wherever the call was coming from, Charlie could hear a small, soft voice. It reminded him of his sister, if she was trying to speak to him from across the canyon in which Griggs sat, but without the phone and speaking as if he was standing next to her.
Charlie wasn't even sure the sound was coming from a female. He pressed the phone against his ear until the only way he could have pushed it any further was if his head opened up and swallowed the phone. He plugged his other ear with a finger to block out the wind blasting through the area. Charlie was not atop a mountain, but he was high up enough that may as well have been.
"Can you speak up?" he tried again. "I've got the worst of the worst reception ever."
As the voice crackled through the airwaves, Charlie took the risk to scan about for a better signal. He was not even receiving the minimal signal needed to show up on his screen. The call coming through was pure miracle. A brief quivering of a bar caught Charlie's eye, and he dared to take a step in that direction, and then another. The signal strengthened, and Charlie stopped searching. It was still a weak signal, but it was coming in louder and clearer than before. Clear enough to hear, and Charlie wasn't about to risk having the signal drop out all the way with another step.
Still, static persisted over the signal. Although Charlie could force through it, if he was patient. "Zzzkt-ello? Is someone there?"
Charlie's fears resurfaced, but he spoke anyways. "Yes, hello. Sorry. It's hard to hear you. Whoever you are."
"Oh! Hi! Sorry to bother you sir -" Charlie was going to be very upset if this was just a telemarketer asking how he likes his service. "This is *Skkkzzkt* Corvus. I worked with Mar*zzkt* Benjamin as a teaching assistant. Is this Charlie Boxer?"
That was a thorny question, thought Charlie. The odds seemed to be against this person being in league with any law enforcement looking for him. Why use such an outlandish means to contact him? He would just as readily picked the phone up for his sister. Charlie may not admit that he would, but he knew deep down that is exactly the thing he would have done.
He could feel his finger twitch over the disconnect button once more. Every urge screamed to run. Some of those urges just desired warmth, but for the most part his body knew this was a bad idea.
However, Charlie proceeded against every instinct. If this was a call from a friend of Markus, he felt as if he owed it to whomever it was.
He heard the young woman's distressed voice calling out to him as he pondered.
Charlie's brain wanted to just throw its hands in the air and go away when he opened his mouth. If words could be heard coming from it, his brain would be shouting stupid over and over again.
"Yes, this is Charlie. I'm sorry for your loss."
It sounded to Charlie that thet voice became cheerier once it had confirmation that they were speaking to whom they thought they were. He wasn't yet certain enough that the voice was indeed female to begin trying to guess the person's emotions, though.
"Hello! Thanks! I'm sorry for the reception, I'm buried in the middle of a thick concrete building, well not literally buried. I'd be calling 911 before a complete stranger, I would think..."
"Miss Corvus? You called for a reason?" Charlie wasn't one for small talk and babbling.
Through the snowy haze of noise, Charlie thought he heard her smack her forehead. "Right, sorry, I got distracted. I get distracted pretty easily, Professor Benjamin said it was at once my most annoying and most endearing trait. There was this one time..."
"Hey!" At the moment he shouted, Charlie thought it sounded like all the static fell away.
From the other end, he heard a small squeak, and with the way his week had been going so far it would not surprise Charlie if she really was a mouse.
"Sorry again. I guess for you its more annoying than anything else. Anyways, I called about the words."
"You don't know about the words?"
Charlie bit his lip. More and more he was wishing that he ha decided against picking up the call. Annoying, indeed. The only way the situation could get worse was if the conversation shifted over to something about religion.
He did his best to remain calm, though. "No, what words?"
"That's the thing, I'm not sure."
"Can we back up and try again, before I scream? I'm in a bit of a hurry here."
"Oh gosh, yes! I heard about what happened up there." Charlie was wrong. The conversation just got worse, without religion. "I know you must be terribly busy, so I won't keep you."
"Well, good." How considerate of her, thought Charlie.
"Markus sent me a copy of a page the other day, of strange words that he didn't understand."
"I hear lots of words I don't understand, Miss Corvus."
Through the resumed static, Charlie could hear the sarcasm dripping from the speaker through to his ear. "You know, this will go faster if you don't interrupt."
Somehow, this managed to have her just be more endeared to Charlie. He could maybe understand a glimmer of why Markus kept her around.
"Anyways, he sent me the list, to see if maybe I recognised them, or if I could find some texts on them. I've been looking for two days straight, and still nothing. Has it been two days? I'm not sure, I don't think I've slept since he called. I like trying to solve mysteries..."
Charlie could almost picture this girl making big hand gestures while she spoke. "Right! Anyways, he said in case I found anything, and couldn't reach Markus, to call this guy. He gave me your number, and your name. Since I won't be getting ahold of Markus anytime soon, at least not without a Ouija board, I thought I'd call you."
"Because you found something?"
There was a long pause, filled only with static. Charlie thought he could hear something in the background. Was the girl actually fidgeting over the phone?
"Not exactly," the bare whisper was almost swallowed up by the reception.
"Then why are you calling?" Charlie did his best to not sound annoyed, but he suspected he was failing. The woman seemed easily spooked, and he did not want that.
"I didn't get a lot of info from Markus, and thought maybe you might have some insight about the words. I didn't really know where else to turn to, Mister Boxer."
Charlie words came out slow and calm. "I'm truly sorry, Miss. I don't know what these words are, or where Markus may have heard them. I don't think I can help you."
What Charlie heard next were words that ascribed to no known language, at least not one he had ever heard. It was almost gutteral, and did not sound as if they were coming from a young woman instead. There were hints of German to it, he thought. Just by the way the words sounded, like they were being forced up and half shouted at the listener. The only other comparrison Charlie could come up with Klingon, but even that did not sound like what was coming from the woman's throat.
And yet, somehow...
"I know those words." Charlie was as surprised as anyone to hear himself say that.
The strange dialect, made all the stranger by the digital compression artifacts and static coming over the line, stopped. The voice returned to the sweet, lyrical tone of Markus Benjamin's TA. That both sounds could come from the same woman amazed Charlie.
"You do?" Charlie thought she sounded like a girl who had just been told she would get a pony for her birthday.
"Not the way you think," Charlie corrected himself. "I know them, but I don't know them. You know?"
"And you thought I was annoying?"
Charlie admitted he deserved that.
"I've never in my life heard anything like what you just said. And yet, something about them, something just out of reach. I can't explain it."
"You don't have to," said the girl. "I understand, actually. Markus said something similar. When he looked at the words, somehow they were familiar, just out of reach. Like he had seen them once a long time ago, but couldn't remember where. And I felt it too, that's why I kept searching since he called. It's bugging me that they seem so familiar, but so...unique."
Charlie glanced around him. Standing still for so long, and out in the open, was starting to get to him. Paranoia was never fun, especially when they are out to get you.
"Look, I've really got to get out of here. Can I call you back?"
There was a pause, "I've got a better idea, why don't you come here? I need you to look over this list. Maybe seeing the words might jog a memory, or thought. Just hearing them, when I don't know what I'm saying or if I'm pronouncing them right, isn't going to help any. Markus was going to show them to you when he was k - killed."
As far as plans went, Charlie had heard worse. He had nowhere to go before, and to the school where Markus taught wouldn't be the first place people would try to look for him. Charlie didn't even know what he taught. Any connection between the two was thin. The only problems came with getting there.
If someone a state away, and three hours by car, could know who he was and what he had done, then Charlie's best bet was to avoid the Griggs bus station. The train station wouldn't be any better. Even if there was a nearby airport, that would be right out.
"One last question," Charlie began. "Why call me? You've seen the news, obviously. You know what they say I've done. So, why?"
The static increased over the line for a moment. "Ssskktkus always was a good judge of people. He trusted you enough to let you in his car. That's good enough for me. Also, you asked that question."
Not the greatest logic in the world, thought Charlie, but it could be worse.
"Also, you've stuck around for this conversation. A guilty person would be afraid of being caught."
Charlie was about to interrupt her, but she seemed to know what he was thinking and leapt ahead to answer his unspoken question. "I know, you're afraid of that as well. But a guilty person knows they did it, and would fear going to prison over the certainty of their act. An innocent person is afraid of being wrongly convicted. You're afraid for the right reasons. You didn't do it, so if you got caught, you would more than likely be found innocent."
"You've got way more faith in the judicial system than I do, miss. However, I take your point. But I'd rather not get caught, and have stood still for far, far too long. I'll see you when I see you. Best not to call this number again."
"Good idea, get rid of the phone. Have a good trip!"
The phone clicked dead in his hands, and Charlie looked at the screen, seeing the signal meter at the barest of bare minimum. With a flick of his wrist, he clicked the phone shut like a woman's compact. The phone bounced in his hand as he judged the weight.
Charlie turned back towards the woods, looking back along the path he had taken. He reared back on one foot, cocking back his arm and hurled the phone deep into the woods as if it were a baseball. Charlie had never had an interest in sports, but his dad had taught him how to throw a mean fastball.
The path reached back into the woods quite a ways, and Charlie's aim was true enough that the phone spun clean back through the woods until it dipped and crashed into the snow.
He had left the phone powered on, knowing someone might try to triangulate his location with it. They'd see it wasn't moving, and Charlie thought they would just ignore it, but even the act of looking for that might delay them a precious amount of minutes. And who knew? Maybe they would trudge out here just to see if maybe Charlie hadn't fallen and broken his leg in the woods.
If the phone had hit a tree, it would have just shattered and died. At least now it would serve as a decoy, however brief, or so Charlie hoped. The snow would get to it sooner or later, but in the meantime, he was sending a beacon up into the sky saying "Charlie might be here!" in bright flashing neon radio waves.
Charlie could just as easily have dropped the phone down into one of his footprints where he stood, but much like the sign outside of town, it felt good. Right now, Charlie needed all the help he could get in feeling better about anything and everything.
He picked up the suitcase from the pile of snow it had been sinking into since he had stopped, and brushed the flakes off the surface. The melted snow cleaned the ancient, dingy surface, restoring some of its colour to a brighter, cleaner white. It was almost as if the snowflakes had rejuvinated the case, and imparted their own colour to it, in those few patches.
Charlie continued towards the town of Griggs, laying before him in a rough circle. The side he had come out on was quite steep, unlike the other side that was closer to a gentle hillside climbing upwards towards the trees.
As he looked at the steep slope ahead of him, Charlie considered circling the town, but he was too far from any of the roads leaving the area. If he hadn't taken the phonecall, he may well have taken the time, but now that he had somewhere to be, somewhere that had the potential for answers, he wanted to find them. Sooner rather than later.
Instead, he took the direct route, and began working his way down the incline. It could have been worse. It could have been a steep cliff. In fact, the crater did become cliff-like not far from where he was. However, the slope wasn't that far from being a vertical drop, and the snow, ice, and fatigue Charlie was beginning to feel would not make it an easy descent.
Charlie placed the suitcase down upon the slope, and let go. It took off like a rock released from atop a building, and zoomed down. It spun and spun as it headed down towards flatter ground. After awhile, the slope became gentler, and the case came to a stop in what appeared to be someone's backyard. Charlie found himself hoping that the entire town wasn't watching the idiot trying to scale down the near-cliff, with popcorn in one hand and phone calling the cops in the other. "Moron murderer caught because he slid down the side of a mountain like a damned fool," was not a headline Charlie wanted any part of.
"If god had wanted us to climb mountains, he would have built them with handrails," Charlie muttered under his breath.
He checked his footing, and took the first furtive step, and could feel the snow sliding beneath him. Still, it held, and he took another step.
One after another, Charlie moved carefully down the slope. As he neared the bottom, his feet at last gave out underneath him. He hit a patch that was more snow than ground, and as the snow disappeared ahead of him, his foot found only air for far too long. He tried to find ground beneath his heel once more, but it was too late.
When his foot did once more connect with the hillside, it kept going, and his momentum carried him down the rest of the way. In his mind, Charlie imagined himself toppling end over end, picking up snow until he was rolling down the hill like in all the classic cartoons, until he hit the house looming closer in his view. It would serve them right for standing their and watching him fall, he thought.
Instead, Charlie slide almost straight to the yard on his side. He kept himself more or less upright, with only a few rolls along the way. His body failed to pick up much snow accumulation, but his pants were covered with wet spots, changing the entire shade of his jeans several tones darker.
His coat too was covered, but the slick nylon material stayed as dry as it could, and the snow just slid right off of it while Charlie stood up. He brushed off the rest of the snow as best he could. He scooped his trusty suitcase back up in his hand, and looked back up the hillside. From where he stood, it looked much less intimidating than it did from the top, and part of himself felt a right fool for being so concerned for trying to get down it the way he did.
The fall and slide down had left a scar in the snow halfway up the crater wall. Charlie had seen snow angels and named his own snow drunk, but had no idea what to call such a marking. Perhaps snow Van Gough painting, if it was more random and impressionistic.
No one from the small home was rushing out, not to greet him nor to arrest him, so that was one for the win column. Charlie had many miles to go, and he did not know where to go just yet, but one foot in front of the other was a start.
It had been a long time since Charlie had been to Griggs. In fact, Charlie realised he had been here more recently than even Kraftsbury, barring his most recent visit. He had not been back home for nine years, and one of those years was spent just over the hill to the north at the sanitarium. He had little to no reason to loathe this place like he did the neighbouring town, but it was literally too close to home.
The intervening eight years since he had seen Griggs had not changed much. The town had little room for expansion, being contained within the walls of the depression left here so long ago by who knew what. Everything outside the crater was either farms, or forest. Many resisted incorporating those areas and making them more civilised. They chose to keep their town small, contained, and quaint.
Charlie suspected that so little had changed in Griggs that he could walk down main street and see almost every store front he rememebred from his days as a teenager. Sure, time changed everything, and some business would have gone under by now, but for the most part, Charlie knew everyone was where he had last left them.
"Of course," he blurted out as he exited the gravel covered driveway of the home he was trespassing at. Charlie glanced around to get his bearings once he was out on the street. He was certain he knew where he was, but still needed to be sure.
Smith Street, just like he had thought. Not a single house had changed. The paint was newer, the trees were bigger, there were different cars sitting motionless with a covering of white atop them, but it was as if almost no time had passed since he had left. It seemed like the town had been frozen by snows long ago, and Charlie was coming back to see the preserved place. Or, given the shape of the town, Charlie could imagine the town as a snow globe with ease.
More than once, Charlie had travelled precisely the path he had taken today. Old habits, as they say. He hoped his subconcious choice of paths wouldn't come around to bite him later. He would often traverse those woods, and circle around the town to a better spot to descend Griggs' Rim. If he had only gone thirty feet or so further down, he would have found a series of stone steps set into the ground decades ago. If not longer.
Charlie would come down those steps, and out onto Smith Street. He could see the driveway he used to come out of just down the street from where he stood. So many times he had come to this street, to meet a friend of the family, and a close friend of his.
Part of him was filled with doubt that his friend would be there. Years had passed. Lives had been lived. So much of the immediate area was the same though, that Charlie dared to allow a sliver of hope fill his heart.
He scanned the street once more, looking for the house. Nothing had changed, but it had been almost a decade since he had come here. The town was the same, but Charlie's memory could be notoriously crap.
Across from the house where the stone stairs, Charlie indeed saw something more than just familiar. Even to someone who had never been somewhere before could look around and have a feeling that they had, and maybe Charlie was wrong and just having that feeling of familiarity. Or so he thought until his eyes fell upon the one thing he would never mistake; his old car.
There was every possibility in Charlie's mind that the odds were just right that someone in this area of town somehow had the exact same car he had ten years ago. He held just enough hope that his luck was not so bad as that.
Charlie was certain there were many Dodge Chargers in Griggs, probably even more than a few from 1986. His car was special though. He was the only one crazy enough to actually want a car the colour of pea soup. Although want may be putting too fine a point on the matter.
When Charlie turned 16, he wanted a car to call his own, so he could get around without relying on his parents or hiking through the woods. However, he still did that to a great degree, having developed a love of the forest around his home. His family may have been well off, but George and Darlene did the classic parenting trick of wanting their child to learn responsibility, so they agreed that they would only pay half the car's price, and not more than 500 dollars.
He worked hard at the local hardware store, saving up his pittance of a paycheck every week, in the teenaged ritual. Charlie had been saving since he was 15, hoping to be able to get something on his 16th birthday, or as close as possible. Whenever he went out, he would check new car lots, used lots, driveways, front lawns; Charlie's eyes roamed everywhere in search of an affordable car.
After a time, he gave up on the new cars, finding those to be prohibitively expensive as any child would. It was most frustrating to the young Charlie, knowing as he did that his parents could have bought any car on those lots if they so chose. Having something new, flashy, and pretty was beyond the reach for Charlie in those days.
One day about a week before Charlie would turn 16, and he had his appointment to get his license, he finally found a car.
Charlie had chosen to take a different route home from school, and explore some of the side streets in Kraftsbury he did not have much opportunity to explore, since they were off the beaten path. And there it was, sitting on a lawn, just waiting for Charlie to come by; a green so pale, so sickly that it looked like Reagan from the Exorcist had spat it up.
When he saw the car, he had a mixed reaction. Before he even acknowledged the awful colour, Charlie's eyes were drawn to the black sign with blindingly bright orange lettering in the front window, staring at him like a lone square eye. Scrawled upon the spot of white left in the lower half of the for sale sign was just the right price: 800 dollars. The perfect price for Charlie. He had saved a little over 500, so would have money left over, and money is all important to a teenage boy with a car.
However, as overjoyed as he was to see a car he could afford, at long last, the next thing he saw was the colour. It was inescapable. No one could miss that shade of green. It would not have surprised Charlie if it was the sole reason why the owner was offering the car up at such a bargain price.
And yet, something about the shade drew Charlie to the car even more. Only a kid looking for a cheap car would take the thing, and even then it would languish away on the yard until someone did. The car was unwanted and undesirable, something Charlie could relate to quite well.
Charlie rushed home and told his parents, and they went down the very next day to look at the car and meet the owner. While Charlie's mother talked with the young man who owned the car, Charlie and his father gave the vehicle a look over.
While his father knew what he was doing, Charlie was pretty clueless about cars. All he saw was something that resembled a box on wheel, with a few angles here and there. George went on about the car being a good brand, from a good year, but it all went in one of Charlie's ears and out the other.
He hated how it looked, as much as he had grown to like it in such a short time. The Dodge Charger was all sharp angles, with not many curves to speak of, like modern cars had. The two door car had a large spot of rust on the driver's side, but Charlie's dad said it was easy enough to paint over. The engine block passed George's inspection, as did the rest of the car. He noticed a few leaks, but again nothing he didn't expect to find in an old car that had been sitting unused for months.
Charlie's father haggled a bit with the owner, and got the price knocked down 50 bucks, but he wouldn't budge any further. The car came home with the Boxers that day, with George driving it. Charlie rode shotgun behind him, poking at every single knob and button he could find, and even reading the owners manual until he got bored ten pages in.
It took a few days for George to fix the car, but once Charlie had his license it was all set to be his. It was far from a 'chick magnet' as most boys hope their first car is, but it gave Charlie a modicum of freedom.
The vehicle served Charlie well for the two years he was able to use it until he was sent away. Ir had its share of problems, but for the most part it got him from point A to point B and did not fall apart in the process.
Once he was locked away, one of the few friends he had paid him the one and only visit he had that wasn't family. The last of the trinity with Charlie and Brendan, was Jeff Cole. He was an odd one to be hanging out with the other two. Unlike Charlie and Brendan, Jeff was popular in school, and was on the soccer team. The other two had tutored Jeff since junior high, and the three had become oddly close because of it. Jeff's other friends from the sports team never hung around with the others, and the few other friends Charlie and Brendan had avoided the rest. Jeff was almost a go between that served both sides of the school world.
But Jeff was always good to Charlie, despite living in different circles. As he sat across from his friend in a room with paint that almost matched Charlie's car, they talked about school, and plans for college. Anything but what Charlie had done. Charlie appreciated the opportunity for a normal conversation with no overtones of therapy, and just acting like a normal teen for twenty minutes.
Before leaving, Charlie looked at his friend, and to pay him back for his kindness offered Jeff his car. Jeff accepted it, since his parents had been unable to afford getting a car for him, nor could Jeff save enough fast enough with his job.
Charlie had considered going back for his car as he walked away from Kraftsbury a year later, but decided it was more trouble than it was worth, and just one more thing to take care of. Instead, he left it in Jeff's care for good.
Now here stood Charlie after many more years had passed, and he was reunited with that disgusting green box on wheels. He never thought this day would come. In no scenario that had ever entered his mind since leaving, was this a thought that occurred to him.
All doubt as to whose car it was vanished the moment he came up behind it. A dent in the fender he had put in it mere seconds after getting behind the wheel the first time was still there, as well as his almost cliche "I stole your honor student's lunch money" bumper sticker. It was peeled at the edges, and faded so much that it was almost illegible, but it was there all the same.
Jeff had even been too lazy to replace the cracked plastic cover over the left brake light that Charlie got with the car. Three owners now had not gotten around to fixing it.
Charlie walked past the car and gave the rear window a pat with his hand, as if he was clapping an old friend on his shoulder. Which he was, in a way.
Now that he was reaquainted with one old friend, it was time to meet another. Standing here in the driveway, he could see the house in front of him. The upper half loomed over the lower, forming a wide overhang in the front. Charlie, Brendan, and Jeff had spent many a night under that spot, drinking beer when they shouldn't, and just shooting the shit. Most of the house was a dark brown, almost as dark as a fresh brewed cup of coffee. Moldings around the doors and windows, and other details were in a creamy beige that offset the rest.
Charlie walked up the slate walkway from the driveway, his shoes scuffing loudly against the rough stone. Without hesitation, he opened the front door and gave a swift rap against the wood inside.
It felt like an eternity as Charlie stood there in the cold, still wet and tired. He gave the door another series of knocks, remembering what time it was in the morning. Charlie heard some commotion behind the door, and some mumbled words lost in the walls between them.
When the door opened, Charlie was shocked at what he saw. The man who had once been a lean, mean soccer player with barely an ounce of fat on his body had let himself go.
The beer belly was quite visible behind the bathrobe he had pulled over himself in his haste to get to the door. Jeff had lost much of his brown hair, although Charlie thought if anyone could pull off the bald look, it would have been Jeff in his prime. Jeff now, though, that was another matter.
Charlie thought Jeff's fate could have been worse. He was still very much the man he once knew, but just a little bit pudgier here and there, and older. Which was understandable. Charlie felt a moment of pity for faded glory and lost potential, for both of them.
Jeff rubbed at his eyes, trying to blink the sleep away. Just who was standing upon his doorstep at 7:15 in the morning was not clear to the man whose brain had yet to join him from the couch upon which he had slept.
He gave a yawn and a stretch, muttering and wondering who it was that had disturbed him from his sleep. As his vision cleared, and his brain dragged itself up out of the drunken stupor it had found itself in since last night, the answer became clear.
Any and all fuzziness that was filling Jeff's head and eyes as the realisation dawned on him. An old friend he never thought he would see again had crawled out of the darkness and shown up.
"Well, I'll be a drunken monkey. Charlie Boxer. What the hell are you doing here?" Jeff found this unexpected visitor to be the best way to cure a hangover he'd ever found. He had not given Charlie more than a moment's thought in at least a year, despite driving around in his car every day.
Charlie cut right to the chase, "I've come back for my car."
For a moment, Jeff thought he may still be very drunk and very hung over, and this was all some sort of drunken stupor he was trapped in.
"I want my car back."
"What? Now? It's been eight years!"
"Whatever, I can't keep track. It's been a long time, either way." Jeff looked annoyed. Even after all that time, Charlie still recognised when Jeff's head wrinkled up so it resembled a brain more than a smooth forehead. "And now here you show up at the buttcrack of dawn, wanting your car back? You never showed up after getting out of the Insitution, so I kept it. For awhile I thought you may pull just this stunt, and did my best to have the car always running."
"And now?" Charlie inqiuired.
Jeff rubbed the back of his head, hair tangling around his fingers. He looked towards the car that had been his for a full third of his life. "Well, it runs, but this wasn't exactly expected. Talk about showing up out of the blue, Charlie."
"Look, I'm sorry about this. I'm in a bit of a hurry. I need to get out of this place, and I need to go quickly."
"What's the hurry?" Jeff motioned for Charlie to come inside as he stumbled his way to the kitchen, trying to remember where he threw the keys after work.
Charlie came in, and closed the door behind him. He was in a hurry, that was true, but better to stand around inside a house than outside, where someone might see him. Warmer, as well.
"Can I trust you?" asked Charlie. If Jeff was the same man he was back in 1999, then he could, but time had left its mark upon the man. Still, Jeff nodded, and he meant it. Jeff thought if Charlie did say something that was a secret, it may well spill out over a beer, but otherwise it was as safe as it could be, in his hands.
Still, Charlie gave pause. He could see Jeff was a wreck of a man, but he remained fundamentaly Jeff. Charlie hoped, more than knew this.
He gave Jeff the shortened version of the past 24 or so hours, glossing over many of the details in much the same way his sister was with her fiance and the cops. Charlie stuck to the facts of being wanted for murder, and left out anything more fanciful or horrific or underground.
Even with keeping things to their basic truths, Jeff's face was still awash with disbelief. Jeff would have heard the version being circulated around the news, and there was every possibility he had heard them, but his drinking had washed away those memories.
"Seriously?" was the only response Jeff could muster.
After Charlie reaffirmed his story, Jeff continued, "And B is the guy after you? That's messed up."
Charlie thought about how that was Jeff's reaction, with just a fraction of the true story being told. What would it have been if Charlie had told him every last detail?
Which isn't to say that Charlie didn't appreciate how bizarre things were, even the barest essentials. "Yeah, tell me about it. So I blundered my way through the woods," which made Jeff scoff. He knew just how well his friend knew the forest between the two of them. "And I found myself here. It was as much a surprise to me as it is to you. I plunked down onto the street, realised where I was, and came straight here."
"And you want my car."
"MY car. It was a loaner."
"For eight years!"
Jeff opened his mouth to say something again, and all that burst forth from the bottom of his gut was a deep, rich laugh. He couldn't remember how long it had been since he had laughed like that. The last time Charlie was around, he thought. He couldn't really say what had set him off, but the absurdity of the situation was at least part of it.
"Fine, fine. Here's the keys." He tossed them through the air and Charlie easily caught them. He looked at the mass of metal in his hand, and picked out the two that were actually for the car, then returned the rest to Jeff.
"You might want to keep your house keys," said Charlie with a grin.
Jeff grinned and hung his head as he dropped the keys back onto the kitchen counter. "Oops. I hate when I get ahead of myself like that. Look, you better get going. If Brendan's the guy looking into this, and when he sees where you've gone, he won't chase you through the woods. He'll come right to my door. You didn't know where you were going, but you came to the one place you could. And B will try here first, and get lucky."
There was no denying the logic, despite having it come forth from a man with a hangover. Even if he didn't go through the woods, this would be a good first place for the police to look. Luck had brought him here, but thought should have kept him away.
While they were talking, Charlie had put the two keys that were once so familiar to him onto his own keyring. He gripped them in his hand and mimicked the gesture he made with his car's rear windshield and clapped Jeff on the shoulder. "I'll try and get her back to you once this gets all sorted out."
"And the odds of that happenening are what, exactly?"
Charlie was not surprised with Jeff's disbelief, and didn't lie to him. "Pretty damned slim, but I really don't want a car. The sooner it's back in your driveway, the better as far as I'm concerned."
Jeff clasped his friend's hand tight. "I may be making a huge mistake letting you go, but I owe you."
"You never did pay me for those tutoring sessions."
"I paid with friendship! And a car."
"My car, you mean."
Jeff turned Charlie around and shoved him at the doorway. Charlie was more in danger of falling down from the shoving than at any time sliding down the crater wall.
He may have looked like any drunken schlub after a hard night of drinking, but for those few moments Charlie felt a hint of his old sport star friend. Charlie would wager that Jeff might have been rusty, but could probably still kick a soccer ball with the best of them.
Charlie was shoved back out into the cruel, cold morning. He looked back over his shoulder and Jeff only gave him a nod, which Charlie returned. The door shut behind him as he went to the car that was once his, and now his again. Charlie only heard it click and lock shut, leaving him alone to his thoughts once more.
The heavy metal door of the car still gave the same shaking creak when he opened it. His father had tried oil, he had tried it, and odds were that Jeff had tried oil as well. Nothing would get rid of that sharp, ear-piercing noise, Charlie suspected.
Inside the car, the air was no warmer after having sat there for at least the whole night, if not longer. There was only a light covering of snow upon the car, what little had fallen since the sun had gone down. Most of it was from blowing wind than actual snowfall.
Charlie started the car up and the engine purred to life. The most reliable thing about the Charger was the engine in Charlie's. He couldn't speak about other versions of the car, but his had always worked like a dream. If he went slow enough, the car almost ran silent. Nowhere near as silent as an electric car or a hybrid, but Charlie's Charger would come close to giving one some stiff competition.
He backed out of the driveway more or less blind, only able to see clear through the side windows. Being in a hurry was not the best for driving safety. Charlie was fortunate enough that the streets were still empty that lazy morning, as he turned into the street.
Sparing a quick look back to Jeff's house, Charlie did not see his old friend watching as he left. Charlie would not have been surprised to learn that Jeff was back asleep on the couch already. When he awoke in a few more hours from Officer Franks indeed showing up there in search of Charlie, Jeff would be convinced his encounter was all a dream from how surreal it was. Until he saw the missing car, and Brendan standing in his kitchen.
Brendan would take one old friend into custody for questioning to find out the location of the other. Jeff would be glad he had not asked Charlie where he was headed. The thought had crossed his mind, and then tell Brendan the exact opposite. Charlie says he's heading to New Jersey? Well officer, Charlie's on his way to Canada! Charlie says Maine? You better check out Michigan, Brendan!
He was well aware that Brendan would likely have seen through such trickery, if Charlie had even told him. And if Charlie had lied, and Jeff tried to be clever, then that could have just made things worse for everyone. Best that he didn't know, so he could sit around like a dumb jock. It's how most people saw him, so why not run with it for a change?
Jeff would still have to deal with aiding a suspect, but he would welcome the chance to pay back Charlie for everything he'd done for him. To Jeff, Charlie and Brendan were real friends. The other soccer players and cheerleaders and the rest he hung around with in school were nothing but there for feeding his ego. They had forgotten about him even quicker than Charlie had. Even though he had not seen Charlie in eight, no nine years, there were still moments of correspondence, and better memories with him and Brendan than any of the other players on his team. If helping out a friend meant doing some time for him, so be it.
Charlie was well aware of the sacrifice Jeff had made, and what he had asked of his friend. He knew how easy it would have been for Jeff to shut the door in his face, turn him out on the street, but was grateful that he had done none of those things.
Instead, Jeff had welcome Charlie into his home, and even let himself remain there and helped him out, despite being a wanted man. Charlie would have been in shock if there was time for such things.
If he got out of this, Charlie vowed he would pay Jeff back. Not just by returning the car they claimed shared ownership of, either. If it was possible to clear this up, it had the possibility of meaning that Charlie could return home. Even if that wasn't in the cards, he could still return to Griggs, at the very least.
Charlie turned his thoughts away from a future that could be very distant indeed. If it was even at all possible. All he needed to worry about now was getting out of the state, and take things from there. Once he had met with Markus' former assistant, Charlie hoped the next step of his journey would be clear. For now, just putting Kraftsbury further and further behind in his car's rearview mirror, which still hung just a little bit askew no matter how you moved it, was enough for Charlie.