It overwhelmed her, the desire for things to be different and the familiar pangs of anxiety cramped her stomach. Her chest tightened and she had to slow down or risk falling to her knees. The street was deserted but she couldn’t shake the feeling that all eyes were on her. Her heart hammered as her anxiety howled.
She perched on the low wall in front of someone’s house and breathed as calmly as she could manage. Her blood screamed at her and her nerves sang a song about all the lives she didn’t have. Thoughts jangled together in her head. She flicked the bracelet of shining grey beads at her wrist. It helped.
Slowly, like clouds parting after a storm, her anxiousness slunk away, leaving her cold and empty. Her right hand grasped the beads on her wrist. Her fingers hurt. There were half-moon marks on her left palm from her fingernails. She wished she’d cut them earlier. Thunder rolled one final time and the storm inside her was gone.
Her shoulders hunched, she sat with her hands on her lap and tried to think of something to think about. It helped to have things to concentrate on and she’d found the Easter break had robbed her of those. Seminars, lectures, and essays all gave her focus. Books filled her head; she could lose hours in reading.
Her friends had gone home for the vacation. Lisa wanted her mum’s cooking. Jenny missed her little brother. Andy was broke. Nia was skiing somewhere in France. Other Charlie was in his parents’ living room on Mountbatten Avenue, number 12, in a small village about an hour and a half away by car. He had a coffee on the table nearby and he was reading a book in Italian, something for his course. She could feel the words in his mind, although she didn’t speak the language herself, past the smattering she’d picked up from him.
He didn’t know that she knew where he lived, didn’t know she could see him reading Italian sitting upside down in a dark green leather armchair with a white cushion tucked between his thighs. As far as she knew, none of her friends knew she could do that, not even Nia and that girl knew more about her than anyone. Nia knew, for example, that Charlie liked Other Charlie. Liked liked him, as Nia would say. Nia also knew that Other Charlie was oblivious to this fact because Charlie hadn’t told him yet. Nia knew why Charlie had not passed this information to Other Charlie but didn’t understand. Nia did not know that Charlie had these abilities.
The Government knew, or, at least, they were supposed to. At her sixth birthday a besuited man with an earpiece had shown up, had a slice of fudge cake, spoken with her Mum and Dad and then left, politely declining a party bag. From time to time, other besuited men with earpieces would show up, ask her how she was and then leave again. Her Dad joked that they just wanted some fudge cake.
Her parents, as a rule, didn’t talk about her abilities. They didn’t ignore them— how could they? —but they didn’t make too much fuss about them. She was always grateful for that. Her mind turned to them. Her Dad, working from home today, was washing the cars as a break from his research. Her Mum was in her office, working on a spreadsheet that looked complex, or, at least, full of numbers. She could be with either of them in about ten minutes or so, but she rarely went home, except for the Summer. They visited often enough at weekends. It was a different dynamic than her friends had with their parents, but she wouldn’t change it. It worked for them.
She flicked the grey beads at her wrist and felt the hollowness recede. Other Charlie gave her plenty to occupy her mind, sometimes enough to keep her awake into the small hours, but it also brought more stress. Would he notice her? Did he like the music her band played? Did he like her? Like her like her? It irritated her that she could read Italian through his eyes from fifty odd miles away but she couldn’t tell what, if anything, he felt about her.
She flicked the thoughts away, leaving him to his Italian, and pushed herself up from the wall. The anxiety faded, leaving only a small ache in her ribs to show it had ever been. She’d been having more moments of it recently. She couldn’t wait for Spring to really kick into gear. The sun always made her feel less stressed and there’d be exams to occupy her mind.
She mused on this as she walked down the road, turning left and passing shops on the busier high street. Past the supermarket and post office, past the bakers and the booze place. She resisted the urge to go into the bookshop. Second-hand books were her chief vice. Her shelves were already overflowing with them. She hurried on towards the park, with a promise to treat herself another day.
The park was ugly without warmth. The bright sun made it look washed out, trees still skeletal hands against the pale sky. She wished it was warm enough to walk barefoot in the grass. She wished that Other Charlie was here to walk with, clutching coffee in their free hands. She wished–
As the anxiety began to rise again, a far off noise alerted her to more pressing danger. A plane falling, wings useless and not able to glide them to a safer landing. There were people trapped. Like a thunderbolt, Charlie leapt into the sky, the wind pulling her hair behind her in long, teased strands. Her feet were cold. She wished she’d worn socks. The scarf her Mum had bought her would’ve covered her face.
She’d never bothered with a costume. It would just make her stand out more. She did slip a pair of goggles on, but only to stop her eyes hurting as she rocketed to the rescue. Her body clamped to the jet’s undercarriage. She held it up, plotting a slow course down to a wide field that could accommodate the plane’s size. She loved the thrill of it, even though landings were always tricky.
With the plane down and the passengers safe, she flew back to the park. No one noticed her go, just as no one had noticed her arrive. The plane’s descent would be considered a freak occurrence, an act of providence, a stroke of luck. She walked back to the house she shared, empty of her friends. There would be a knock at the door soon, the inevitable besuited man with an earpiece checking in.
She put the kettle on, found some socks and wound the new scarf around her neck, pulling it up to her chin. She settled on the sofa and cradled tea in her non-book hand. She took a sip and sighed as her goggles steamed up. She wished she had a cat. She wished she was still in bed. She wished Other Charlie would call her.
As her stomach cramped, her blood screamed and her chest tightened so that she thought she would choke, there was a knock at the door.