Snow, Mirror, and Sludge
Charlie’s fingers spidered across the neck of the violin as he drew the bow with gliding, clockwork precision. Oxford students wearing suits hurried through Bain College’s courtyard, while several warmly clad passerby snuck inside to watch the performance. Once a year, the boys from Lynchwood School played at one of the Oxford colleges. This performance marked Charlie’s second visit to the esteemed institution. He scanned the crowd gathered in front of the chapel’s gothic windows as his fingers moved effortlessly over the strings. With every note hewn into muscle memory, the song sounded across the lawn with a certainty he didn’t carry into the rest of his life.
Charlie led the other boys. He could feel angry stares from behind him, boring into his neck. He endured hatred for attaining first violin from several of them, who longed to add the position to their university resumés. But the seat was his. He practiced the violin every day and had for as long as he could remember. His grandfather had given it to him before he could walk, and it now reminded him of better days. With Gramps gone, the English landscape, once enchanting in its novelty, appeared dreary and empty.
His observations of the crowd proved pointless. Only strangers stood in attendance. He had been foolish to think his parents would visit, and he’d tried to harden himself against the blow. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Noble, hadn’t visited England, nor had they written to Charlie or Sarah, but he knew they walked the streets of Oxford tonight. They were scheduled to arrive to sort out his grandfather’s possessions and address his will.
Trying to remember their faces, he almost missed a note. He fully turned his focus to the song at hand.
As his bow dipped, he caught sight of a pair of eyes fixed on him. The gaze belonged to a girl wearing a green beanie. The short hair escaping underneath it surely caught everyone’s eye: sunset, rose, copper, crimson, fire—brighter than blood. And her stare… honey amber, like light on gold. It unnerved him with its stillness. He stared back, expecting her to look away, being caught, but she smiled. He gave up first, looking at his conductor, his face burning. Why was she staring at him?
There were no girls at Lynchwood, the school he’d attended since moving to England to live with his grandfather. In California, he had gone to a school with both boys and girls. When his parents decided to send him and his sister Sarah to England, they’d enrolled in respective boys and girls schools. If it weren’t for Sarah, Charlie wouldn’t even know how to talk to the opposite sex.
Like the absent sun, he knew where the girl who watched him stood without having to look. She watched him, specifically. He entertained reasons why he might hold her interest as his violin skidded over sticky staccato notes.
The boys finished the last few chords, and the crowd gathered in the courtyard broke into polite applause before dispersing.
“That’s excellent, boys. Excellent,” his teacher said, guiding them in a unified egress from the frozen lawn into a dark-paneled retiring hall inside the college.
Parents followed, filling the hall, congratulating their sons over tea and biscuits, while students zipped their instruments into cases. Charlie didn’t inspect the people in the hall. His parents only came to Oxford to manage the estate and the will. They weren’t coming here. As soon as the necessary business was sorted, Mr. and Mrs. Noble would be back in Los Angeles. He had told them about the concert, but whereas Mrs. Noble responded to his text with platitudes, Mr. Noble hadn’t acknowledged it.
As Charlie rubbed his hands together for warmth, he turned his mind away from his parents. They hadn’t shown, and it was no use brooding over it. His thoughts drifted to the girl who had been watching him. She’d come to watch. Who was she? A sister of a classmate maybe? Now he glanced around the reception, but he didn’t catch any hints of scarlet among the people complaining about the weather and taking staged pictures of the boys pausing to smile before shoveling down crumpets.
A hand clasped his shoulder. Edwin, a greasy boy in his year, held his violin case loosely in one hand, and bore a sarcastic, lazy smile. Charlie resisted the urge to shrug off Edwin’s hand, and prepared himself mentally for whatever gibe Edwin planned to throw at him when no one else could hear. Edwin’s father was friends with the Dean of Bain College, which was probably why the Lynchwood boys were able to perform here. It was also presumably why Edwin played second violin. Charlie could only assume attaining second place prompted Edwin’s verbal attacks on him.
“Fab job, out there. As always,” Edwin said with a bored drawl. Yet his comment held an undertone of something almost approaching interest. “Was that your girlfriend in the crowd? That why you’ve been keeping to yourself lately? Where is she?”
He kept to himself because he preferred the company of books to his classmates, whose every conversation revolved around status and nepotism. He didn’t care if Edwin’s uncle worked as a foreign diplomat, or that Rodger’s father married a famous actress. When he first arrived, he’d accumulate friends just to have them, but he couldn’t maintain his friendships. He always found himself finding reasons to withdraw from everyone else. Was he lonely? Yes, but his spells of solitude allowed him to grow surer of what mattered to him. He sometimes imagined he’d been born at the wrong period in time, in the wrong place, for nothing except music came easily to him. There were screens everywhere, phones, constant chatter. How did everyone else deal with the lack of quiet? He couldn’t do it like everyone else, and it was why he never fit in at school. He hadn’t minded putting on a polite face and ignoring everyone when his grandfather was alive, but now these conversations drained him.
“I didn’t know anyone in the audience,” Charlie responded. He shifted back slightly from Edwin, but Edwin stepped forward in response, closer than before.
“I heard your sister is meeting Brisby tonight,” Edwin said in an oily voice as a sneer crossed his face. Thomas Brisby provided most of the boarding schools in Oxford with their prescription drugs. He could get his hands on anything. His notoriety also derived from his boasting about female conquests. Charlie saw him in passing from time to time with Edwin and some of the other miscreants in their year.
“Actually, Sarah and I have plans with my parents this evening. You’ve been misinformed,” Charlie said, inventing quickly. He would call Sarah as soon as he left the hall, hopefully before she left for the night.
“Are you and Sarah attending the gala at the Sheldonian with your parents, then? I heard they weren’t letting anyone in under eighteen.” Edwin said, his leer growing.
His parents most likely were going to a gala. Mrs. Noble never turned down an opportunity to dress up and schmooze among well-connected bureaucrats. He wanted to shove his fist into Edwin’s smug, smiling face.
“Maybe you should just admit your yank sister has no class and save the performance for someone more gullible. Oh, did I hit a nerve?” Edwin asked insolently. “Maybe you should sit in the corner and read while we all have a laugh about it.”
At that moment, he saw the red-headed girl enter the hall. She glanced around hastily, then caught his eye again.
“Excuse me,” he said, trying to muster sarcasm as he pushed past Edwin, his ears ringing. He was used to Edwin, and those like him, egging him to cause a scene. They surely hoped he would break and punch one of them, surrendering his spot in the orchestra. The girl proved a useful distraction. He squeezed through the reunions of doting parents and boys who were soon about to leave for restaurants throughout Oxford, now that the scattered biscuit trays lie empty.
He didn’t lose sight of the girl as her eyes shone on him like beacons. He feared if he looked down for too long, she would disappear—a figment of his imagination. Hopefully he wasn’t losing his mind. But Edwin had seen her too. He remained cognizant of the surreal nature of meeting a stranger across the room as he moved toward her. He didn’t know her name. He didn’t know anything about her. Her eyes were a bright, and her hair wildly framed her face, not quite to her shoulders, flattened by the green beanie. She wore all black—a long sleeve shirt and leggings. She didn’t smile now, or even wave him over. She merely waited for him. When he finally reached her they stood near the wooden doors, and she appraised him before speaking.
“You play well,” she said.
The spell broke. Charlie felt silly, standing there with her. Had she even wanted him to come over? She was most likely related to one of the other boys. He must have imagined their unspoken connection. He didn’t know what to say, and he searched his head desperately for conversation. Each second spread like an hour of silence between them. He spoke the first words that came to him.
“I noticed you in the audience,” he said, immediately wishing he could take it back. He wanted to exude confidence, but his statement came out more like a question.
“You’re American,” she said, surprised. Charlie was used to this. Everyone’s opinions about the United States surfaced as soon as they heard him speak. Would she like it or consider it a point against him?
“California,” he said.
“I always imagined everyone from California being tan,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve been here for a couple years, with my grandfather.” Mentioning Gramps out loud brought an unexpected wave of emotions on him. He shook his head, stifling them. The girl changed the subject.
“I normally watch the performances here. I really like music,” she said. She unleashed a large smile, which spread across her heart-shaped face. He smiled back dumbly. He had never seen such a pretty smile. The tension eased.
“Me too,” he said. He worried for a second that his peers might be listening, but the chatter around them filled all corners of the room. “I’m Charlie,” he added, holding out his hand.
“Ridley,” she said, taking it. Her firm grip and the way she shook his hand gave him the impression she had pent up energy.
“Ridley,” he repeated. Warmth rose in his cheeks, and his ears burned. She noticed, and she laughed. He ignored the impulse to shy away.
“Want to get out of here? It’s kind of stuffy?” she suggested. She was definitely flirting with him. Even her eyes smiled. A burst of confidence met him, relieving his worries.
“Yeah,” he said, gesturing to the door. He threw a glance over his shoulder, and saw Edwin watching them, looking sour.
Charlie jogged to keep up with her as she moved across the courtyard, where a small flurry of snow flitted, and turned under a stone archway. They paused, looking out over the snow drifting over more gardens. He mused at the snow, irregular for February, and Oxford in general.
“I love the colleges,” she said. “Have you explored them much?”
“No. I rarely venture from my house and my school,” he admitted. “Have you?”
“My uncle lectures here. I know Dain College inside and out,” she said, winking at him, and setting off into the frosty garden. Ridley led him around stone walls crawling with ivy, into a smaller garden through a black, iron gate. A tombstone sat in its center, and the windows of the college chapel reflected the grey sky. “It’s quite pretty in the snow, isn’t it.”
“I suppose so,” he said. “Kinda creepy too.” She let out a chiming laugh which made him smile.
“Come on,” she said. They traipsed inside through a wooden door, and she stomped the slush off of her shoes before steering him into the chapel.
The patterns on the colorful glass windows enlivened the room, despite the weak light pouring through them. Ridley crossed behind some of the pews, and she shifted a panel on the back wall out of its place, revealing an opening.
“Whoa!” Charlie exclaimed.
“The whole college is full of passages. I’ll show you some, if you want. It’s a shame keeping the secrets all to myself.” She gestured toward the opening in the wall. A warning went off in the back of his mind, knowing they surely weren’t allowed there. Yet it was impossible to fight the promise of adventure, which was just what he needed to distract himself from the events of the day.
“You’re full of surprises,” he said, peering into the opening. A thin inner hallway sat between the stone wall of the college, and the wood of the chapel. Ridley crept into it first, and Charlie pulled his phone out for extra light as he followed her.
“I’m going to miss this,” she said, as they snuck along the inner wall of the chapel.
“Miss it? Are you planning on going somewhere?” he asked.
“I meant it in the hypothetical future sense… I’m not going to stay in Oxford forever,” she said. A slight quiver in her voice made her sound flustered.
“I’ve never been on a date like this,” he said, as they approached a spiral staircase set into the secret corridor. He groaned inwardly, annoyed at himself for saying the word “date”. He couldn’t read her reaction in the dark.
“Down there, there are science laboratories. They’ve been around for hundreds of years,” she said.
“And what up there?” he asked, gesturing to the ascending stairs.
“That’s where we’re going! It’s dormitories and common rooms and offices… Fancy a game of truth or dare?” Her eyes glinted mischievously in the light of Charlie’s phone.
“Alright,” he said, smiling.
“What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” she asked.
“I didn’t pick truth!” he said.
“Shhh! We’re already sneaking around the college. What would I dare you to do?” she said. He barely knew her, but he could thing of several things to do in a secret corridor with her.
“Fine, truth,” he conceded. “… I think this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” She laughed her chiming laugh again.
“What’s your school like?” she asked.
“Isn’t it my turn?” he asked.
“Nothing gets past you, Charlie,” she said. “Go on then.”
“What… hmm.” He tried to think of something. He wanted to know everything about her. Did she bring other boys on adventures like this? Why did she choose him, of all the boys in his class? He wasn’t the best looking. He decided to go with something safe.
“What’s something that makes you happy?” he asked. “Besides sneaking around Dain College.”
“Easy. Being outside—not like, on Broad Street. In nature, surrounded by trees… Sometimes Oxford seems too civilized, you know? I wish there was a bit more wilderness to it… What’s your school like?” she asked again, laughing.
“I guess tedious is a good adjective for it,” he said.
They continued asking questions, until the stairs leveled onto another corridor. Ridley showed him where a false panel, made to look like stone, was set into an old fireplace. She paused, listening to make sure no one was in the other room before moving it. They crawled out through the fireplace, into some sort of common room. The top of the fireplace snagged on Ridley’s hat, and she pulled it hurriedly back over her head.
“I like your hair,” he said without thinking. He wanted to smack himself.
“Thank you,” she said, touching her beanie as if to make sure it was still in place. They left the room, entering another corridor. The college walls stood cold and quiet. Their movements sounded as Ridley walked with purpose. Finally, she stopped outside of a worn, wooden door.
“Have you ever kissed a girl before?” she asked.
“I…” he blinked several times. At 16, he didn’t have much exposure to girls, apart from Sarah, but surely they weren’t normally this forward. A moment passed, and then she burst into laughter again, a charming mirth written across her features.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she said, pushing his shoulder playfully.
“Is this your uncle’s office then?” he asked, switching his violin case from one hand to the other. His feeling of uneasiness intensified now that they were in the open. What would they say if someone found them here?
“It is,” she said, flashing another smile, and glancing at his violin case. “Perhaps you can play me a song.” She withdrew a key from around her neck, where several others looped around a chain. After unlocking the door she tucked it back under her shirt and strode inside.
The office smelled of musty books, and was lit primarily by an old gothic window where a cold grey light drizzled over an antique desk cluttered with papers. A giant chalkboard hung behind it, mounted on the wall, covered in equations. On the other side of the room, a wooden-framed mirror towered—nearly touching the ceiling. When he spotted it, he couldn’t look away. It drew the attention of the room, being enormous and conspicuously clean as is stood on the dust riddled floor. The wooden frame displayed intricate carvings of animals and seasons, musical instruments, dancers, and effigies of people swimming in waves.
His feet carried him towards the mirror, and a strange desire to jump at it took hold. He couldn’t hear anything in the quiet college, but something about the mirror evoked music—the inundating lull of a deep, dramatic concerto.
“Sometimes it looks like there is another place through the glass,” Ridley said, stepping next to him and putting her hand to rest on the reflection. She withdrew it, not leaving fingerprints behind.
“Another place?” Charlie echoed. He shook his head, returning to his senses. “That’s not possible. What is this?” For a second, he wondered if Edwin had set this whole meeting up as an elaborate prank.
“Look at yourself,” Ridley said, pulling him closer to the glass by his arm. He became keenly aware of her touch. He looked at her, and then back into the mirror. His thick brown hair ruffled in the front, needing a trim. Long eyelashes framed his light brown eyes, and they blinked back at him, confused. A flurry of movement passed in his gaze. He squinted and moved closer—close enough to fog the glass, though he didn’t. He saw trees in his eyes’ reflection. They widened in surprise, and he stepped back automatically. He saw movement again, and turned to the empty office behind him. It remained still. Goosebumps rose on the back of his neck. Had he seen that, or did the glass create some sort of optical illusion, like a trick mirror?
“My uncle found this mirror outside, from a woodland they were clearing south of Oxford… I have a suspicion he knew about it, and went to get it before the loggers got there… He studies it. The trees become clearer with more focus,” she said.
Fascination and caution battled within him, both instincts flaring with the discovery of the glass. The extraordinary nature and the improbability of it made the reality of its existence too hard to accept, like the situation that had brought him here.
“I’m sorry… Is there a reason we’re in your uncle’s office?” he asked. “Do you want to grab dinner instead?”
“I want to hear you play some more,” she said, gesturing toward his violin case. He stood, about to turn and leave with the inkling that indeed she led him into a trap of some kind, when she smiled again. That smile.
“I’ll play one song,” he said. He knelt down and unzipped the case, withdrawing the violin and the bow. While he tightened the bow, adding a bit of rosin, and tuned the violin, Ridley stared at him, captivated.
Charlie exhaled, realizing he’d been holding his breath. He placed the violin on his shoulder and looked out of the window, where the sun gently poked through the grey snow clouds, dappling the courtyard with white light. He played Claire de Lune. It was the first real song he’d taught himself, and he loved the feel of it. The high, hanging notes, and the dramatic release swept him away. He watched Ridley as he played.
Ridley’s honey-colored eyes rested on him, as if her restlessness subsided and contentment found her at last. With the rise and fall of the song, He and Ridley drew closer to one another. By the last note, they stood mere inches apart. He could smell her—a fresh scent, like a combination of sandalwood and peaches. He reached out to touch her, but she ducked away from him.
“May I try?” she asked, gesturing to the violin.
“What, playing?” he asked. She nodded. Swallowing the disappointment of lost proximity, he handed it to her.
Ridley took it from him gingerly, as if he passed her a baby. She traced her fingers around the edge, and then took the bow.
“Have you played before?” he asked.
“Only in dreams,” she said, placing the bow on the string and closing her eyes. As she drew the bow across the lowest string, a deep hum reverberated around the cold stone office, growing rich. Charlie gasped as his face began to warm. The sunlight fully emerged from the clouds and broke in through the window.
He shielded his eyes from the brightness. His chest rose, and he drunk in heat and spice with the note in the air. As Ridley reached the end of the bow, and the note ceased, the light disappeared behind another cloud. The coldness of the room washed back over them. In what was previously silence, he heard voices echoing down the corridor.
“Thank you,” Ridley whispered, and she stepped to him, pressing her lips against his.
It happened fast. Charlie closed his eyes. Her lips were warm, and she kissed him with restlessness. He kissed her back, and his stomach leapt. He’d never kissed anyone before. The moment passed, fleeting.
“Someone is coming,” Ridley said, pulling away.
“—in Professor Halladay’s office?” a man’s voice said, just outside the door.
Ridley scooped up the violin and its case, and carried them behind the desk, crouching out of sight. Charlie stood, frozen to the spot, in the middle of the room. Someone knocked upon the door. Ridley rose her head from behind the desk, and she pointed frantically at the mirror.
“Mark, are you there?” a woman called. He finally came to his senses. He rushed behind the mirror, taking care to tread as lightly as possible, as keys jangled in the door’s lock. “It’s open,” the woman said, confused. Just as he moved fully out of sight, he heard several people enter the room. His heartbeat sped up. He searched his head for what to say if they found him. He hoped his feet weren’t visible under the thin space between the mirror and the floor. He couldn’t very well say he hid in here by accident.
“Mark?” the man’s voice called again.
“We must have just missed him,” the woman said.
“He might not have been here at all,” the man replied. “I thought I heard one of the boys from the concert downstairs. It was too loud to have come from in here…”
The footsteps retreated, and he heard the door close. He heard the sound of keys again, as the visitors locked the office from the outside. After a moment of silence, after their footsteps faded away, he hazarded to come out. Ridley’s head peeped over the desk.
“We should go,” she said, hurrying out from her hiding spot.
Charlie thought about trying to kiss her again, but his phone rang. He fumbled to take it out of his pocket before the people from the corridor heard it. It was Sarah.
“Hello?” he said, answering it quietly, pressing it close to his ear.
“Charlie, can you come get me?” Sarah asked. Her voice cracked. She cried into the phone.
“Of course. Send me your location,” he said, filled with guilt. How could he have forgotten to call her after Edwin’s remark? “Are you alright? What’s wrong?” He cursed himself for not calling her as soon as he’d gotten wind about her plans to meet Tom Brisby.
“Can you just hurry?” she asked.
“I’m on my way,” he said. He hung up, and instantly got a notification of Sarah’s whereabouts, south of Oxford, toward Cowley. Tom’s neighborhood. He turned to Ridley.
“Go on,” she said, handing him his violin case.
“When can I see you again?” he asked.
“I’ll keep an eye out for you,” she said, opening the door and checking to make sure no one was coming down the corridor.
“Can I have your number?” he asked, trying again. “We can play the violin. I can teach you.” He wanted desperately for her to say yes. For a fraction of a second Ridley’s mouth turned down, and her frown reached her eyes. Something moved under her beanie, near the top of her head. He looked at her hat curiously, but before he could even tell her about it, she was pushing him out of the door.
“I’m sorry. If we’d met before now, who knows what could’ve happened. But our timing is terrible. I’ve got to go,” she said. He wanted to protest, but didn’t know what to say. His heart sank. It hurt that she’d brought him here, kissed him, and then wanted nothing more to do with him. It was as if their afternoon adventures never happened. She gave a faint smile. “Thank you, though. The music means everything to me.”
She pushed him into the corridor before he could respond, and closed the door between them. As it closed, Charlie imagined he saw a yellow flower growing just out of the window. Seeing it gave him pause. He stared at the dark wooden door, wondering if he should try again. He raised his hand to knock on it, but withdrew his fist to his side.
“I hadn’t kissed a girl before,” he said, defeated, forgetting to care about being loud in the corridor. “To answer your truth.”
“It was my first kiss too, Charlie Noble,” she said, her voice muffled by the door. She didn’t open the door again. He buried his emotions with the other blows he’d been dealt that day, and then left to help his sister.
The streets outside the college were busy. Double-decker buses, cars, and bicycles wound through the frosty lanes, around the towering stone edifices that comprised the colleges. The elaborate buildings rose like castles against the skyline, magnificent beacons of academic history amid the falling snow and sleet. He hailed a cab and gave the driver Sarah’s location. As the car pulled away from the college, he reflected on his whole afternoon as though it had been an elaborate dream. Ridley’s prettiness ensnared him, and out of the entire class of boys, she’d picked him. Had she cornered other boys before, played in the stone hallways before ghosting them?
The snow eased, but slush gathered on the edges of the pavement. The driver pulled up to a neat, brick townhouse, the uppermost windows covered from the inside. Sarah waited on the curb outside Tom’s house, her arms wrapped around her middle, wearing an oversized grey sweatshirt. The black makeup she painted around her eyes smeared and stained the skin under her lids.
She entered the car quickly, as soon as it pulled up and recognition flashed across her face. Charlie gave the driver their grandfather’s address. He could tell she had been crying, and it made him uncomfortable.
“What happened, Sarah?” he asked.
“I just forgot my money,” she said, sniffing, and turning to gaze painfully out of the window.
“Money for what? Were you with Tom?”
“For a cab, Charlie… I saw Tom briefly,” Sarah said, fresh tears springing to her eyes.
“Did he hurt you?” he asked, attempting to mask his growing anger.
“No, no. I just felt uncomfortable the whole time. Tom got really handsy, and it all felt wrong, so I left. But I’d forgotten my purse at home, so I had to wait in the cold. He wouldn’t let me back inside.”
“What a prick,” Charlie said, relief washing over him. Edwin could go to hell. Sarah was fine.
“Did Mr. And Mrs. Noble show up at your concert?” Sarah asked, changing the subject. They had started calling their parents Mr. and Mrs. Noble some time ago, and it suited them much more than “Mom” or “Dad.” Sarah attempted to rub away the makeup under her eyes unsuccessfully.
“Nope.” He fiddled with the handle on his violin case.
“I’m sorry, Charlie. I know you were really hoping they’d turn up.”
“It’s fine,” he lied. He forced a smile. “Mr. And Mrs. Noble are going to a gala tonight, so if there isn’t food ready I’ll order us a pizza.”
They had been staying in the empty house for several weeks, overlooked by the system. Neither of them mentioned their grandfather’s passing at school, hoping they wouldn’t be taken into custody by any agencies. Certainly they wouldn’t be allowed to continue living at their grandfather’s house, alone. Charlie supposed he should be grateful no one had caught onto them. He considered how he would explain their living situation to their parents.
“Pizza’s good.” Sarah gave him a rare smile of gratitude, which looked funny amid her smeared makeup, and he was hit with a rush of affection for his younger sister. With their grandfather gone, she was all he had left. He needed to look out for her, better than he had today.
“You look like a raccoon,” he said. “I wish I had a mirror. Your makeup is everywhere.”
Sarah let out a tired giggle. “Isn’t it weird that they don’t have racoons here? I kind of miss the trash pandas,” she mused, her mood lightening considerably in the warm cab.
“Me too, but the foxes here are kinda cool,” he said. The other night, he and Sarah caught two foxes fighting on the roof of the neighbor’s house, through the window. Thinking of the red fur brought Ridley back to his mind. He tried to keep lighthearted conversation with Sarah, and block out the rejection Ridley gave him.
When they pulled up to their grandfather’s house on Banbury Lane a new ‘For Sale’ sign hung on the stone wall in front. Someone must have hung it during their absence.
“I suppose boarding school is next,” Sarah said as they climbed out of the car, and Charlie tipped the driver—a habit he didn’t easily abandon after living in California. “There’s no way they’re going to take us back to California.”
“Maybe,” he said. He couldn’t decide which he preferred—returning to Los Angeles, or staying in Oxford. “Mr. and Mrs. Noble probably went over the will already,” he said, looking up at the old red bricks.
Some of his best memories were of his grandfather in this old, Victorian house. He experienced a pang, realizing he could no longer call it home. Never again would his grandfather gather them in his study and tell them stories of imagined worlds, where people used memories for currency, and dogs flew with feathered wings. Even though they were teenagers, they liked to hear him tell stories—replete with details and characters so well developed, they could escape into them swiftly and easily.
He sighed. Grandfather Noble had loved him and Sarah, and even though he often spent long chunks of time hermitted away with his books, he’d grown much closer to them than their parents ever had.
Charlie and Sarah moved past the garden, and opened the front door to find Mr. and Mrs. Noble reviewing papers in the dining room. Mrs. Noble curled her waist-length brown hair, like Sarah’s, into big, perfect spirals, and wore a fashionable black dress. Mr. Noble had a strong, square structure, both in body and face, and short, styled hair. He wore a tailored suit. They looked exactly as Charlie remembered them. Two years had passed since he had seen them, and the interim served to create further estrangement. He kept the last message his father had sent to him, over a year ago: Your school is sending me forms. I’m busy at work, so have your grandfather take care of them from now on. He forged his father’s signature on everything the school sent home since then.
Speaking loudly, neither of them gave any indication they heard Charlie and Sarah come in. They didn’t even look up at the sound of the door closing. He and Sarah spied them, two rooms away.
“We don’t have to stay here until the house sells. We can probably be out by the end of next week,” Mr. Noble said, taking a slug of amber liquid that sloshed thickly in a crystal tumbler.
Mrs. Noble produced an exasperated groan. “God, boarding school is a fortune,” she said. She put her hand to her forehead, wearily.
“This one’s not bad,” came Mr. Noble’s response, producing a leaflet. He looked up and caught Sarah and Charlie looking at them. “There you two are!” he said, his voice full of forced jubilance. “Come over here and say hello. Let me get a look at you!”
Charlie and Sarah shyly moved into the other room. Mrs. Noble smiled at them, but it didn’t reach her eyes. He considered that the emotion might be masked by her Botox and fillers. Mr. Noble gestured toward seats at the table, and Charlie and Sarah sat. Charlie didn’t know what to say, so he waited for his parents to speak.
“We were just discussing your schooling situation,” Mr. Noble said. He handed Charlie the leaflet. It looked like a small co-ed school, here in Oxford. It didn’t have the amenities his current school offered. He flipped the brochure around. There were no clubs. ”What do you think of this school? It’s right down the street from your current one, and you can both stay together.” He felt indifferent. He knew his choice wouldn’t matter anyway. Once Mr. Noble got an idea of what he wanted into his brain, there was no swaying him.
“Why didn’t you go to Charlie’s concert?” Sarah asked, ignoring the paper.
“Excuse me? We’ve been working all day,” Mr. Noble said, his voice rising. “We had other things in mind. In case you didn’t notice, little miss Sarah, my father is dead. He left us with a shitload of stuff to do—funeral, house, paperwork.” Mrs. Noble put her hand on his arm to calm him.
“Speaking of,” she said, withdrawing some papers from under a stack at the table, and handing them to Charlie and Sarah. Mr. Noble stopped fuming.
“We need you two to sign these, as you’re not of age to manage what your grandfather left you,” Mrs. Noble said. Charlie skimmed the document.
“This is for a court order?” he asked.
“It’s just a formality because of the amount. It’s only until you come of age,” Mrs. Noble said cajolingly. She gave him another empty smile. This wasn’t the conversation Charlie envisioned having, reunited with his parents. Sarah scribbled her name on the paper, and pushed herself away from the table. She marched upstairs without another word.
Mr. Noble handed Charlie a pen. Both of his parents watched him. As soon as he wrote his name, Mrs. Noble gathered up the papers and paperclipped them together.
“There we go!” she said. “Easy peasy.”
“What time is that gala?” Mr. Noble asked.
“Hors d’oeuvres start at six,” Mrs. Noble said. She looked at her watch, where little diamonds glinted in place of numbers. “I wonder where the car is.” She flipped her long lock over her shoulder and pulled out her phone. Charlie left to find Sarah.
Upstairs, he found her in their grandfather’s study. He moved quickly inside and shut the door.
The small study sat meticulously organized and clean, nearly untouched since his grandfather died. Charlie liked that it still smelled like him. The furnishings were old and outdated, yet they carried a charm about them. His grandmother had picked them out years before she died of cancer, and Gramps never wanted to replace them. A wall of tightly-packed books held subjects ranging from folklore, to botany, to mathematics. A small window gathered frost on its panes, and a plush chair sat next to an outlet where he remembered the heater used to be.
“Let’s just run away,” Sarah started. She stood by the bookcase and trailed her fingers over the covers. “We can go to Cabo and work at a resort or something. We can be surf bums.”
“You don’t even know how to surf,” Charlie said reasonably.
“Well I don’t want to be here…” she trailed off. The fight had gone out of her. She took a deep breath, came over, and hugged him. “Everything’s shit, but at least I’ve got you.”
He hugged her back.
“If we get emancipated, we can sue for our trust money to finish out school,” he said.
“Doesn’t that take a long time to sort out?” Sarah asked. “Will they let us live here? You’re only sixteen.”
“Fuck it,” Charlie said. Exhaustion clung to him. The glum weather drained him of retaliation. He sat down on the brown carpet and roamed his hands over it.
Someone knocked on the front door, and Charlie was surprised when Mr. and Mrs. Noble entered the room with a stranger. He had glasses that matched Gramp’s, and slightly poufy hair. He stood taller than Mr. Noble, but around the man’s age. He held his long limbs with a sort of gangly awkwardness.
“Ah, hello,” he said, seeing them. “Charlie and Rosilin,” he said, pointing to them in turn.
“Take whatever you want in here—except the lamp,” Mr. Noble said to the stranger. “Sarah, Charlie, this is a friend of your grandfather’s—Mr.—um, what was it?
“Halladay,” the man said. “We’ve met before, Peter…”
“I can’t recall,” Mr. Noble said. “Anyway, he’s offered to clear out the study.”
“Just the books and journals, and, um… Did he leave a violin by chance? I’ll gladly pay for that,” Mr. Halladay said.
“I’d need to have something like that appraised first,” Mr. Noble said, resuming a familiar, business-like air.
“That’s the car,” Mrs. Noble said, as her phone let out a ping.
“Whatever you can’t sort tonight, you can get in the morning. We’re trying to have the house cleared by Wednesday,” Mr. Noble told Mr. Halladay before giving a curt nod and departing. Charlie heard the downstairs door open and close a moment later.
“You can’t just take our grandfather’s things,” Sarah said to the man, Mr. Halladay, who stood idly, looking unsure of whether or not he should be there.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The man looked genuinely troubled. “This is a hard time… I cared for your grandfather very much as well… He was helping me sort out something I was researching before he…” He sat on the edge of the desk, looking ruefully between Charlie and Sarah. Loads of people had respected Charlie’s grandfather. His research for the colleges was widely known. Charlie hadn’t met many of his grandfather’s personal friends. He’d gone out to meet them on occasion at luncheons, but he wasn’t gregarious by any means. Something about Mr. Halladay reminded Charlie of his grandfather. He considered it might be the glasses.
“It’s fine,” Charlie said. “It’s not like we can take this stuff anywhere…” Sarah glared at Charlie, affronted.
“I didn’t realize no one had gone through anything. You know what—I’ll just come back in the morning. You two can sort through some of this. I’m sorry to have been a bother.” As he stood off the desk, he knocked a journal to the floor. It opened to a page with a drawing of yellow flowers. They looked exactly like the one Charlie had imagined growing out of the window at Dain College that day, with a long stem and wide petals. Mr. Halladay scooped up the book, and squinted at the page.
“Thanks for giving us some time to mourn our beloved, dead grandfather before you took all his stuff away,” Sarah said caustically, opening the door for him with a scowl planted on her face. “Just take the book,” she said, before Charlie could protest.
Mr. Halladay looked at her sadly, and then nodded once. On his way out the door, he stopped and cleared his throat.
“If either of you ever want or need anything, please reach out to me.” He pushed his spectacles up on his nose, and withdrew a card from his wallet. He handed it to Sarah. She pocketed it, and waited for the man to leave. When they heard the door close for a second time, Sarah plopped into their grandfather’s chair, resting her had in her hand.
“We’re all alone, Charlie…and homeless,” she said. “I don’t know what to do…. I miss Gramps, and in a week we’re not going to have anything to remember him.” Tears of frustration began to well in her eyes.
“Me too. I miss him all the time…” He did. He wondered what his grandfather would say to them right now… if he could comfort them with a story… He imagined his grandfather’s intelligent eyes shining behind his spectacles.
“Will you play a song?” Sarah asked. “Something happy,” she added.
“I have just the one,” he said, thinking of a quick, Irish fiddle tune as he unzipped his violin case. When he beheld the open case, his jaw dropped. He looked up at Sarah, piecing the events of the afternoon together.
“Where’s your violin?” Sarah asked. It was gone. A small cylinder with a spinning end of colorful stained glass had been put in its place. Charlie extracted it from the velvet lining and held it up to his eye. It was a heavy, old-fashioned kaleidoscope.
“She stole it.”
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