|Breathless: A World War II Novel
Author: rougette PM
Charlotte Martin is devastated upon finding out she must leave her home to stay in England until France is safer for her. On the surface, England appears perfect; she's swept into the world of theatre and learns to love her new home and the people in it. But war is determined to get in the way of everyone's happiness, including Charlotte's.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Chapters: 22 - Words: 80,353 - Reviews: 48 - Favs: 16 - Follows: 22 - Updated: 05-17-13 - Published: 07-09-12 - id: 3040217
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Barry. I promise to have my trigonometry finished by tomorrow. And my Spanish and literature. I promise, Mr. Barry. Goodbye. I'll see you tomorrow!" Charlotte nearly shoved her tutor out the front door and quickly shut it behind him. She leaned back on the door with a sigh, secretly thanking God that he was gone. She was convinced she had never met a duller man in her life.
Preceded by his whistle, Lewis came strolling down the hallway, through the parlor. Catching sight of Charlotte, he gave her a quick wave and asked, "Is Barry gone, Charlotte?"
"Yes, Lewis," she replied. He nodded and continued to walk toward the kitchen. Lewis had been spending more and more time at home, writing in his office, and only giving himself breaks to eat lunch, dinner, and to spend time with Helen when she wasn't at the theatre. Charlotte missed seeing him around the house more often, but enjoyed sitting with him for lunch. Although Lewis wasn't very talkative during his writing sprees, she usually enjoyed his quiet company. But today, Charlotte wanted to talk.
She followed Lewis into the kitchen where he was fixing himself a sandwich, humming quietly.
"Lewis?" Charlotte asked quietly, sitting at the table.
"Hm?" he replied absently. Charlotte could almost count the ideas swirling in his head.
"Lewis, I don't want to study with Mr. Barry anymore."
Lewis looked up from his sandwich for a moment, but then continued to work. "May I ask why, Charlotte? It was only weeks ago that you were begging for me to find you a tutor."
"Oh, Lewis. He's so terribly dull! I can never keep my mind from wandering whenever he speaks!" Charlotte told him miserably. "I only wanted to have a tutor because I was afraid to go to a normal school. I didn't think anyone would like me especially because Jack didn't like me and he was the only person around my age that I really knew. But now Jack and I are getting along so well. I was thinking I might be able to try going to a normal school after all."
It was true. During the weeks that had passed since Jack's birthday, the two had gotten along very well. Although their relationship was still nothing like what Charlotte had with Luc, she still enjoyed having someone to chat with over dinner or to sit and read with in front of the parlor fireplace.
"Charlotte, it's already May," Lewis told her logically. "I'm sure the students are finishing their work for the term. It may be too late to start."
"Oh, please, Lewis!" Charlotte cried, giving her most pitiful look. "I promise I'll do all my work and get along with the other girls and work really hard!"
Lewis gave her one last thoughtful look before finally nodding. "All right, I'll see what I can do. But only if Helen agrees that it's the right decision."
"She will, I know she will!" Charlotte said excitedly. She hugged Lewis. "Thank you, Lewis! I'm going to have to write to Luc and tell him! I know he'll be so excited for me!" If he even gets my letter, she thought to herself. But she pushed the negative thoughts from her mind and ran up to her room.
As she neared her doorway, Jack was just coming out of his room. During the past few weeks, not only had Charlotte and his relationship gotten better, but he seemed to be getting along with his own family better. He was coming to dinner, offering to go to the theatre, and spending less time away from home. He even looked better Charlotte noticed that dark circles no longer ringed around his eyes, and he had more color in his cheeks, as if life had been pumped back into him. She didn't know why there had been such a change, but she was glad for it.
"Good afternoon," she told him cheerfully as she opened her door.
"What are you so cheery about?" Jack asked amusedly. He leaned back against his door with his arms crossed in front of his chest.
"Lewis is permitting me to go to a real school for the rest of the year," Charlotte said with an accomplished grin. "Finally! No more Mr. Barry and his dull, dull lessons! I could cry from happiness!"
"Really?" Jack asked. "What made you change your mind?"
Charlotte smiled and shrugged. "I guess I've just been feeling more at home." She grinned at Jack before closing the door to her room. There was something about the look he had on his face as if he were impressed with her, for her gumption or her persistence that made her feel excited all over. It was a feeling she hadn't felt in a long time, or perhaps she had never felt it before. But she was glad for it. And she was glad for Jack.
The first day of school couldn't have come quick enough. Lewis had her enrolled in one of the top girls' schools in London, and Charlotte couldn't have been more excited for her first day. But as she slipped on her school jacket over the plain white blouse and straight skirt that came with her mandatory uniform, Charlotte began to feel less confident. Her modern bob and fringe clashed terribly with the classic uniform and flat, sensible shoes. She had tried to braid it to the back of her head, but pulled out the pins with disgust after deciding that it made her look like a Nordic maiden. It was too short to pull into a ponytail or pigtails. Sensing her frustration, Mrs. Gates, who had come in to give Charlotte some morning biscuits and tea, offered her a red ribbon to tie back her hair with.
"Thank you," Charlotte said gratefully after tying the bow. She smiled at Mrs. Gates, even though her lips quivered with nervousness.
Jack drove her to school that morning, even though it was nowhere near where he attended school. He had insisted, probably sensing how terrified Charlotte was when she came downstairs for breakfast.
"Aw, don't you look cute," he had commented jokingly, seeing her in her uniform for the first time. Charlotte could only give him a weak smile as she sipped her tea. "Don't be nervous," he told her. "No one at that school is any better than you. Don't let them think so."
But his advice didn't calm her one bit. As they drove, Charlotte blurted out, "What if none of the girls like me? What if they make fun of my accent? What if they think I'm stupid or slow? And I hate sports! What if they make me play sports?"
"Stop worrying so much, Charlotte," Jack told her. "You have nothing to worry about." He pulled up next to the entrance of the school. "Topher will be coming to get you after school, because you get out before I do. If he isn't here on time, don't wander around by yourself. Call Lewis or even Helen at the theatre, and someone will come get you. Alright?"
Charlotte nodded. She looked at the looming, impressive school, and butterflies flooded her stomach.
"Don't worry," Jack told her, looking straight in her eyes. "Everything will be alright. I promise."
Charlotte managed to give him a bit of a smile and nodded. "Thank you for driving me. I...I'll see you later."
Jack nodded. "Of course. See you later."
Charlotte nodded and bit her lip. But finally, she forced herself out of the car, and onto the pavement. And putting one foot before the other, she tentatively walked toward the building, not at all as confident as she had been when she talked to Lewis only a few days ago.
Her first class was incredibly nerve-wracking. She was told to sit in the fourth row of girls, behind a girl with an enormous head of blonde curls that Charlotte could barely see the board from behind. But she didn't complain. She waited impatiently as the teacher called roll, becoming more and more nervous as the alphabet reached the M's, and hoping she wouldn't sound incredibly pitiful as she announced her presence.
"Charlotte Martin?" the teacher finally called.
Charlotte licked her lips and called, "Here," but her voice came out crackly and soft. To her dread, the teacher hadn't heard her.
"Is Charlotte Martin here?" the teacher asked for a second time.
Charlotte forced herself to raise her hand. "Here, sir. I'm Charlotte Martin." And then she was acutely aware that the thirty girls sitting around her turned to look at the new girl, who pronounced her name so differently than what the teacher had said.
"Oh, hello Charlotte. I hadn't seen you back there. Welcome to the class," the teacher said politely. "Everyone, this is Charlotte Martin. She comes to us all the way from Paris. I hope you'll all give her a warm welcome."
Charlotte's cheeks flushed pink as the girls gave her another final look before returning their eyes to their books, but she also noticed that one didn't look away quite soon enough. Charlotte turned to her right and noticed a pretty little redhead with bright blue eyes, brighter even than Jack's. But the girl wasn't looking at her rudely-quite the opposite. The girl looked at Charlotte with intrigue and curiosity. And then she gave her a little smile. Charlotte smiled back before giving her attention back to the teacher. And she wondered if school might not be as bad as she had expected.
Later that afternoon, Charlotte discovered the school's library, which towered higher than both Lewis' and the library at her Parisian school. Brimming with excitement, Charlotte had immediately begun to pull books from the shelves and seated herself at a long table where she could spread out and read to her heart's extent.
After a half-hour or so, Charlotte heard clipping little footsteps on the hard wooden floors and realized they stopped right beside her table. She looked up to see the little redhead from class standing there beside her with a smile on her face.
"Hello. Your name is Charlotte, isn't it?" she asked, wringing her little hands. "I don't know if you saw me, but you're in my first class. It's a literature class. You're from France, aren't you? At least that's what the teacher said..." she finished with a shy smile. "I'm sorry. I'm so very awkward at introductions. "I'm Celia. Celia Hobbs. It's very nice to meet you."
"It's very nice to meet you too, Celia. Would you like to sit down? I'm sorry, the table is crowded with books..." Charlotte said hurriedly, pushing some of the volumes aside.
"Thank you." Celia sat down and folded her hands at the table. "I came to find you," she admitted abashedly. "I didn't know if you had met anyone at school yet and I thought you might like a friendly face, so to speak. I know how terrified I was when it was my first day at this school."
"Did you move here, too?" Charlotte asked in surprise.
"Yes," Celia nodded. "I'm actually from Yorkshire, which is why I have a bit of a funny accent. But my parents sent me and my brother here for school because they say it's the best place in England to go! I live in the dormitories here."
"You don't live with your family?" Charlotte asked. She grimaced. "I know how hard that is. My family is back in Paris."
"I can imagine how you must miss them," Celia said in regret. "But I'm sure you have it worse than I. At least my family is in the same country! And you can't even speak your own language at home! Oh, I can't imagine that. I'm doing so poorly in French right now. I can't imagine having to speak it all the time!"
"Oh no, I'm sure it's hard on the both of us equally. You must miss your parents so much."
Celia nodded. "I do miss them. Will you be living at the dormitories? Maybe we could have dinner together, or something like that!"
Charlotte shook her head. "I don't. I live with the Carey family in London. They were friends of my mother's. They're taking care of me during the war." She noticed Celia's face fall. "But you said that you were doing poorly in French class? Perhaps I could help you with your French?"
Celia's face broke into a grin. "Oh, I'd love that! My parents would be so angry with me if they saw bad marks on my school reports!"
"Would you like to come over my house after school? You could have dinner with my family and we could finish our schoolwork, if you'd like. I mean, if you have the time, of course," Charlotte added hurriedly. Of course this pretty girl with such a friendly personality might already have more important plans...
"I'd love to!" Celia agreed, her face lighting up. "Oh, I knew it from the minute I saw you, Charlotte! I knew that we were meant to be friends!" She grinned and threw her schoolbag over her shoulder. "I must be going. I have to meet with a friend in the courtyard before class to go over some notes. But I will meet you after school? At the front entrance?"
"Yes, of course!" Charlotte agreed, smiling. "I can't wait!"
"No, I'm completely serious!" Celia managed between her shrieks of laughter, which were so contagious. "Master Crawley read the entire note in front of the whole class. Isis' cheeks were so red that I thought she was going to overheat! I would have been so embarrassed!"
Charlotte laughed and asked Celia excitedly, "What else should I know about the girls? Right now they're all such blank faces to me. I'm dying to know their stories!"
"Hm," Celia thought as she bit into another biscuit that Mrs. Gates had brought up for the pair of them. They were sitting cross-legged on Charlotte's bedroom floor, their schoolbooks cast aside as they chattered. "Well, do you know Ella Brown? She sits in front of you in class. She has big blonde hair."
"How could I not see Ella Brown? I don't see anything but Ella Brown," Charlotte giggled.
"Well, she used to have a twin sister who went to our school. Her name was Elizabeth. They're absolute opposites. Ella quotes the Bible and talks about Jesus all the time. And Elisabeth would talk about boys all the time. And they would certainly talk about her, as well. She ended up getting pregnant and got pulled out of school just before Christmas. We haven't seen her since, and Ella hasn't even breathed a word about it."
Charlotte's mouth fell open in sheer shock. "You're kidding! How absolutely terrible!"
Celia shrugged. "But you can't say it wasn't deserved! If you believe in that sort of thing, of course!"
Charlotte nodded and sighed. "Well, I suppose we should actually do some schoolwork before dinner. Lewis won't be happy with me if I don't finish my schoolwork on my very first day of school!"
Celia nodded decisively. "You're right. Should we start with French, then? I need all the help I can get!"
Charlotte laughed. "Yes, let's." She rolled onto her side to grab her schoolbag, but found only Celia's there. "Oh, drat. I've left it in the car." She got to her feet. "Come with me to Jack's room. He's bound to have some extra pencils and paper in there."
"Is Jack your brother?" Celia asked curiously as she followed Charlotte to the door.
"No, not at all," Charlotte replied quickly, thinking of Luc. "I suppose he's my...house brother. He's the Carey's son. He just turned eighteen, only two years older than us."
"Same as my brother," Celia commented. She gave Charlotte a mischievous smile. "Is he handsome?"
Charlotte grinned at her friend's question. "Yes," she replied right away. "But I don't think about him like that. And he certainly doesn't think about me like that, either. But both his parents are beautiful, so there's no reason why he wouldn't be. You can come in and meet him if you'd like." Charlotte knocked on Jack's door and called. "Jack, may I come in?" Not hearing a response, she opened the door anyway. "Jack, I left my bag in the car. Would you mind if I used some paper and pencils so we can do our schoolwork?"
"Mhm," Jack murmured distractedly as he scribbled away at his desk with his back toward Charlotte. He grabbed a nearby notebook and a few pencils and extended his arm out to her.
"Thanks," Charlotte said, taking them. She turned back to Celia, who gave her a look of urging. Charlotte turned back to Jack.
"Um, Jack. This is my friend Celia Hobbs from school. I met her this afternoon."
Jack nodded, still not looking up.
Charlotte looked at Celia and shrugged her shoulders, but tried again. "Jack, Celia's from Yorkshire. She only moved here a few months ago but already she knows everything there is to know at the academy."
"It's nice to meet you," Celia chirped from behind Charlotte.
Jack glanced over his shoulder and muttered, "Nice to meet you, too..." but then he took a second glance and something about Celia must have held his interest, because he stood and smiled at her.
Celia grinned at him and bit her lip, just like Charlotte always did when she was nervous or flirting or something. "Hi," she said in her little voice. "Well, you look like you're really busy so we should leave you to whatever you were doing. Bye." She turned for the door, with Charlotte following her.
"Whoa, wait...what did you say your name was?" Jack scampered to the door and held it so that Celia couldn't leave the room. He had a remarkable smile on his lips and his eyes were sparkling. Charlotte was surprised-she hadn't seen him like this before. Was he really that taken with Celia already? She hadn't counted on this happening.
"Celia. Celia Hobbs."
"Are you related to Jimmy Hobbs?" Jack asked with his same smile. Charlotte knew that Jack knew he was irresistible with that smile, and she hated him for using it on Celia.
"Yes, he's my older brother!" Celia exclaimed with a smile. "How do you know him?"
"We go to school together," Jack replied. "I should have known. He has the same spectacular red hair that you do." He tugged on a strand of Celia's hair. "But I think it looks much prettier on you," he added quickly.
Celia blushed but she was grinning, and Charlotte could tell she was loving every moment of the flirting. But Charlotte, on the other hand, was not.
"Well that's all such an interesting coincidence," Charlotte said, trying to break up the flirting. "But we really should be going, Jack. We have a lot of schoolwork to do and that French won't learn itself. Come on, Celia. Let's go."
"Are you going to stay for dinner?" Jack asked Celia curiously.
"I was going to, but Jimmy phoned over this afternoon and he reminded me that we're having dinner with our aunt and uncle in London tonight. I stupidly forgot about it, silly me." Celia frowned in disappointment.
"Don't worry, it happens to the best of us. But now that you and Charlotte are friends, I guess you'll be over here more often? So I will see you then." Jack gave her another grin.
Celia blushed again, but smiled back. "Yeah. I'll be seeing you."
"Alright, let's go," Charlotte prodded Celia out the door and back to her room.
"What's the matter?" Celia asked as Charlotte threw the paper and pens onto her desk and slammed herself down into a chair. "Are you mad or something?"
"No, not at all," Charlotte told Celia as best she could. "Should we start working on this? Your brother will be here to pick you up soon."
Celia drew a chair up next to the desk and sat by Charlotte. After a moment, she commented, "Jack is really handsome, Charlotte."
"I know that."
"I don't know how you can live in the same house with him without fancying him," Celia told her honestly. "I wouldn't be able to."
Charlotte bit her lip and sighed before looking at Celia. "I guess I just have a lot of self-control," she finally replied.
Later that evening after Celia had left with Jimmy, dinner was silent in the Carey house. Charlotte absently turned her potatoes over and over on her fork, but nothing could detract from the awkward lack of conversation at the table.
"Is anything the matter?" Lewis finally asked.
Charlotte shook her head, but didn't say anything.
After a few more moments of silence, Helen set down her glass of wine and folded her hands on the table. "What's the matter with you two? Things were coming along so well and now you're not speaking to each other again? What happened between you?"
"I..." Jack looked across the table at Charlotte and said truthfully, "I honestly don't know."
"Charlotte?" Helen asked quietly.
Charlotte could feel all eyes on her, but she didn't say anything. She glanced up at Jack across the table, and found him looking reproachfully back at her. But she just looked down again at her plate and said nothing. He shouldn't have to figure it out, she thought miserably and turned her potatoes over once again.
"Maman!" Charlotte screamed. She thrashed around in the water. "Papa!" Her voice grew hoarse as she screamed their names over and over again, but no one was answering. An explosion had blown them out of the boat that was carrying the whole family from France across the English Channel, and now she couldn't find anyone in the chaotic waters.
"Maman! Papa!" she shrieked again. She began to swim through the water, pushing past other frenzied passengers to try and catch a glimpse of their hair, their coats, anything.
"Maman!" There she was! Charlotte knew it was her mother. No one else would have worn such a lavish red and fur coat just for a little trip across the English Channel. And no one had hair as inky black and shiny as her mother's, but there it was, drifting in the cold water.
Charlotte scrambled to swim over to her mother. "Maman!" she called once again, in relief, turning her mother to her. But then she had to suppress a scream. As she turned her mother, she could feel that it was just dead weight, somehow propelled in the water. Her mother's skin was clammy and pale and cold to the touch. Her green eyes were wide and unseeing. Blood dripped from her head. There was an open wound in her chest. "Maman!" Charlotte sobbed, falling away from her dead mother and backing into another body-her father's, which was just as lifeless as her mothers, with a wound to his neck.
Fear flooded Charlotte now. She cried out hysterically for the person who mattered the most. "Luc!" she screamed. "Luc! Luc, where are you?" She whipped her body around and around, trying to catch sight of him. And then there he was, only a few meters from Charlotte, with bulging eyes, thrashing in the water as he sank underneath the surface, only his arm above it. He was drowning.
"Luc!" Charlotte treaded to her brother as fast as she possibly could, faster than she even knew how. He was underwater by the time she reached him. Ducking underneath the surface, Charlotte grasped for her brother, finally catching a bit of his sleeve and yanking him with her to reach air once again. But as she tried to keep a hold of him, there was something else pulling her back.
"No!" she tried to shout to whoever was trying to save her, but they didn't listen. Charlotte grabbed a hold of Luc's arm and pulled him with her as the was brought up to the surface and dragged onto a piece of wreckage. "My brother! Save my brother!" she cried to whoever had yanked her from the water. And they did. Charlotte sobbed harder than ever, in relief, as the man dragged Luc from the water onto the piece of wreckage. "Luc!" Charlotte cried. "Thank God!" But her words had barely left her mouth when the men began to shout.
"He's not breathing!"
"Underwater for too long!"
"What?" Charlotte asked breathlessly, not wanting to believe it. He had only been in the water for mere moments before she had gotten to him! She shoved past the men to reach her brother. "Luc!"
But he was gone. He lay sprawled on his back, his eyes wide open but unseeing, his mouth gaping like a fish.
"No," Charlotte cried, crawling over to him. "Luc, wake up! Wake up!" She laid her head on his chest, but everything was cold and still. "Luc, please. Please. Please don't leave me. Wake up! Wake up!" And then there was another tug from behind her. "No! Leave me with him! I need to be with him!" she screamed, fighting against whoever was pulling her away from her brother. "Wake up, Luc! Luc! Wake up! Stop! Leave me alone! Let go of me! Let go of me!"
"Let go of me! Stop!" she shrieked, thrashing against him.
"Charlotte, stop. Charlotte, wake up. It's just a nightmare. Charlotte."
Charlotte opened her eyes, tears still streaming down her cheeks. But she wasn't in the English Channel, and Luc wasn't beside her. Only Jack was there, looking very tired in his pajamas, and with a distraught look on his face as he held Charlotte's arms from hitting him.
"It was all a nightmare, Charlotte. Everything's okay," he told her, staring straight in her face.
Charlotte shook her head as her hysterics returned. "No. No, Jack, it's not okay. I don't know where my family is or what's happened to them. I don't know if they're alive or dead. I don't know anything! I don't know anything!" She sobbed harder than she thought possible.
Jack sighed and quietly straightened the covers on her bed, which she had mangled during her sleep. He took the book she had been reading as she fell asleep from her side. "Hamlet," he said quietly. "Charlotte, Ophelia's suicide isn't exactly light reading for before you sleep. No wonder you had nightmares," he told her. But Charlotte kept shaking from her sobbing. Jack shut the book and put it on her nightstand. Then he looked back at her. "Charlotte, I promise you. It was all a nightmare. You're alright. I came as quickly as I could-you scared me straight from my bed with your shrieking. But it's alright, I don't think Helen or Lewis or any of the others heard. Just me. Do you need anything?" Jack looked at Charlotte's miserable, devastating face and sighed again. He gently put his hand to her forehead and swept away the sweat-soaked fringe that stuck to her forehead.
"Charlotte, do you want anything?" he asked her again, softly, stroking her hair with his palm. But it just seemed to make Charlotte feel worse.
"I want Luc," she finally mustered, before breaking into sobs once again.
Jack sighed. "I know," he told her. He reached up and turned off her lamp. And then he gently lifted the covers and crawled into bed beside her, cradling her from behind, and hugging her with a reassuring hold, still stroking her hair the whole time. "Shhhh, shhhh," he murmured to her. But he wasn't trying to make her be quiet. He was trying to soothe her, to make her feel better. And it was working. As he cradled and held and stroked her, Charlotte began to feel more safe. She liked how she felt in his arms, as though he could protect her from anything. She liked this feeling she had with him. She liked that she could sob in his arms, and that he would be there to make her feel better. Charlotte drifted off to sleep finally, hours later, without Jack having ever stopped his soothing.
But when she awoke to the sound of her alarm clock the next morning, Charlotte was alone in her bed, leaving her to wonder if it had all just been a dream.