It was another dreaded family reunion.
Charlotte hated them. The only reason she went along was because Father always dragged her there. Sometimes even kicking and screaming. But in the last few years she had learned to just stay quiet throughout the whole ordeal, and everyone would leave her alone. No one wanted to talk to her, anyway. She was just that one illegitimate child of Martin's, who looked like none of the rest of the family.
In fact, as Charlotte glanced around at the various faces she had seen a dozen or so times over the years, she saw nothing in them that even looked the least like her. The only indication of her relation was her long, blood-red hair that matched Grandmother Ellyn's so exactly. There was no mistaking it. Otherwise, no one could tell where the rest of her porcelain features had come from.
Just as well, she thought to herself.
From her vantage point at the top of the stairs, she watched as aunts, uncles, and cousins darted about in the family room. All happy. All happily with their families.
"What are you doing up here?"
Charlotte snapped around. Standing behind her was a boy she had never seen before, with a rough face and wispy black hair. Although there was something familiar about him. Maybe it was something in those golden eyes of his.
"What are you doing up here?" she retorted. "This doesn't look like your family reunion."
The boy grinned mischievously. "You're that girl of Uncle Martin's."
He sat down next to her. For some reason Charlotte didn't feel like shoving him away like she did the rest. How strange.
"The one everyone is always whispering about."
That made Charlotte blush. "And just who the hell are you?" she sneered.
Charlotte shook her head. "Never heard of you before."
"I live here. This is my parent's house."
Now she knew he was lying. "Oh really? Then how come I've never seen you?"
He looked back at her like she was crazy.
"Are you serious? I hate these things! Like I want a bunch of good-for-nothing distant family rummaging through my stuff."
Charlotte furled her eyebrows as exaggerated as she could. "You mean, you're parents let you skip out?"
Salem shrugged. "Oh sure. They don't care. They're too busy anyway, drinking martinis and chatting it up with Aunt and Uncle Sylvester on their newest committee position."
Charlotte smiled. She was already beginning to like this newly discovered cousin. Maybe she wasn't alone in this nightmare.
"You still haven't told me your name," Salem said, interrupting her thoughts.
"Oh. You don't already know? What about all the talk and stories you heard?"
Salem waved her off. "Please. All they want to talk about is what kind of girl Saint Martin managed to bed with. They must really hate you, because no one ever uses your name."
That made Charlotte blush again. She knew they didn't like her. The looks and stares when she was much younger were almost unbearable. Still, it didn't help that this Salem kid was saying it to her face.
"My name is Charlotte," she managed to mumble out, looking away slightly.
Salem blinked. "What are you so mopey about? Do you actually care what those rich bastards think?"
She looked back at him sharply. "Shouldn't I?"
Salem shook his head, his face twisted with amusement. "What have they ever done for you?"
Charlotte thought about it. Nothing. All they had ever done was look down on her and think of her as some kind of…mistake.
"I'm not a mistake," she said aloud, more to herself.
"No. But if you keep trying to be like them, you might as well be."
Salem was right. What were they to her? Just her Father's siblings and their children. They meant nothing to her. She obviously meant nothing to them. And apparently neither did Salem.
She looked back at him. His face was unreadable.
Offhandedly, she asked, "What do you do up here while you wait for them to leave?"
Now he was grinning again. "Fun things. Here, wanna see?"
Salem led her back to his room, which was actually a lot farther away than she thought. It was in the northern most corner of the whole house, where she no longer heard anymore of the party downstairs. And when she walked in, her first thought was that it looked more like an old attic than a bedroom. Not to mention that with all the strange odds and ends stashed about that it especially looked like an attic. A plush bed sitting in one corner was the only indication otherwise.
Charlotte paused when her foot creaked on one of wooden floorboards. She glanced up to see Salem approaching a large work table.
"I've seen the rest of your house," she said. "Why do you live in here when you could have any one of those nice bedrooms?"
Salem shrugged, sitting down in front of the table. "I like it here."
Charlotte took her time walking over to the table, examining the various boxes and clutter scattered about. It seemed her elusive cousin was somewhat of a pack-rat, but some of the strange gizmos and various parts looked interesting. She decided she would like it better in here, too.
When she got to the table, Salem was finishing up whatever he had started. Charlotte took a moment to look it over before she decided it was some kind of electrical generator. She spied the generator block, and followed the dozens of wires pouring out of it to a large plastic tub. Inside the wires became frayed and scattered about.
Salem reached into a glass jar by his side, pulling out a large beetle. He set it carefully in the plastic tub, watching it scurry about for a moment. Then, with a flick of a switch, he turned on the generator, which screeched to life.
The unfortunate insect cracked and sizzled as electricity cooked its small body. Arcs of lightning jumped between the scattered wires. Charlotte watched with rapt attention.
Salem grinned again. "Once I figure out how to up the voltage, I'm going to test it on some mice and snakes."
Charlotte looked up at him. "You have mice and snakes here?"
"Oh yes. Out back, in the small gulch between this neighborhood and the next. The association that owns this part of the city claims that they exterminate everything, but they lie. All so that more rich people will come in and buy these huge houses. But I know right where to find them."
"Can we go find some now?"
Salem shrugged. "Sure, come on, Charlie."
Charlotte frowned as she hopped down from her chair. "Charlie?"
"Yeah. Charlotte's kind of a mouthful. Plus, I think you'd make a great Charlie."
Charlotte hummed to herself, rolling the name around in her head.
"Charlie…I think I like it."
"Well c'mon then, Charlie. I'll show you right where some of the nastier stuff hides out."
The two of them scampered unhindered to the backyard, and through a gap in the fence that Salem claimed his parents didn't know needed fixing. From there they hiked down the shallow gulch between the rows of expensive houses, and into the forest line. Further in there was a thick stream, where the two hunted for strange critters for the rest of the day. Charlotte was sad when she heard her Father calling for her later that evening.
"Damn, that's my Father."
Salem shrugged. "That's okay. You're still in town for the reunion, right?"
Charlotte nodded, sighing. "They had to make these things last a freakin' week, didn't they?"
"Well I'll still be here. Hey, if you come by tomorrow, I can show you my truth-machine."
Charlotte pulled herself up the steep dirt incline out of the stream, and started back out of the forest. She waved once to Salem.
Soon she was in her Father's expensive government car, riding back to their hotel. He looked at her with puzzlement after seeing her covered with a thin layer of dirt and grime.
"What have you been up to, Charlotte?"
"Don't call me that anymore, Father. I'm Charlie now."
He laughed. "Well, all right. I wondered how long it'd take you to pick that up. That or Lottie."
Charlotte laughed with him. His was the only laugh that felt natural. When she thought about it, every time she heard any of her relatives laugh, they all sounded forced; unnatural. Her Father's made her feel warm. Then again, Salem's laughter had been real enough. But it was…different somehow. She would have to figure that out later.
"So you haven't answered me," her Father went on. "What were you doing that got you so filthy? I thought you hated hanging out with your cousins."
"Oh, I still do. But I met Salem today, and we had fun down in the gulch."
Her Father's face darkened. "Renée and Jacob's son?"
"Yeah. He's not like the others. He's fun."
Charlotte looked up at him, but was a little startled to see his lips pressed into a straight line. He wasn't happy about something.
"Charlie, Father. Remember?"
He grunted in frustration. "Charlie, I think it would be best if you didn't see that boy anymore."
Charlotte frowned. "But why, Father? He's the only one there I can stand to be around. He isn't fake like the others. And he doesn't think I'm a mistake."
Her Father looked down at her in surprise. "A mistake? Where did you ever get that idea?"
"You know what the others all think. That it was a mistake for you to keep me. That it would have been easier to have just gotten an abortion, or—"
"Don't talk like that! You are not a mistake, do you hear me?" His voice had gotten louder, and suddenly Charlotte felt afraid. "You are the best thing to happen to me since your mother. Don't let any one of them make you believe for a minute that you are a mistake."
Charlotte didn't say anything for the rest of ride. When they got back to the hotel, her Father sat down on the bed, sighing.
"If you really want, you can play with Salem again tomorrow."
Charlotte smiled widely. "Really?"
He nodded, taking a deep breath. "Yes, but…Charlie, be careful. That boy might not be as institutionalized as the others, but he's not right in the head. If he ever makes you do something you don't feel comfortable doing, then come find me as fast as you can. Or, at least get away from him."
Charlotte frowned in puzzlement. What could Salem ever possibly do that made her uncomfortable? If anything, he was the only one she felt comfortable around. Besides Father, at least.
Her Father smiled, ruffling her hair. "God, you look so much like your mother."
Charlotte held her smile, just shrugging, but secretly she couldn't help feel a little pang of frustration inside.
Father was always talking about Mother; especially more-so as Charlotte found herself growing older. If she was such a wonderful part of his life, why had she left them? What was it that was so important that she had been forced to leave without another word for the last ten years? Charlotte loved her Father, but all she could do was tell herself that she hoped one day she would at least get to meet her Mother.
Because secretly, she didn't know if she could trust her Mother.
For what if all along, Mother had simply abandoned them?
He really wasn't that strong. Charlie found this slightly surprising, considering that he had nearly fifty pounds on her. Still, Salem was right. He would be easy enough to bring back without much of a fight. And now here they were inside Salem's room, and he had the machine almost ready.
"See, told you so," Salem remarked, not bothering to look up from his work.
"Shut it," Charlie grunted, "where do you want him?"
Salem nodded to the chair. "Get him latched in."
The cousin in question, one Dennis Marshall, still struggling against her grip, couldn't seem to overpower her.
What a wimp, Charlie thought to herself. He was fifteen years old; two years older than her, and he still couldn't break free. Charlie knew any of the others would have put up a much tougher fight. Apparently Salem had made the right choice after all.
She pushed Dennis into the chair roughly, securing his arms and legs with leather straps. Those she had been particularly pleased to find, having only just gotten them in the last week. Just in time for another family reunion.
"Ready?" she asked, turning to Salem.
Salem nodded, flipping on several more switches. The machine hummed to life.
Their latest instrument of torture had been tricky to put together. It was easy enough to get the parts to build their earlier machines for the rats, snakes, and occasional squirrel. They had even managed to get away with catching Aunt Diane's cat, and to this day no one knew what had really happened to it. Of course, the charred remains in the gully would have given little for them to work with.
"When I tell my parents, you two are so going to be grounded," Dennis growled. "What kind of shit have you guys been doing up here?"
"God!" Salem grunted. "Won't he shut up?"
"You're the one who picked him," Charlie added, brushing a strand of red hair out of her face. She glanced back at the machine, taking a moment to admire it.
Thanks to her Father, she had been able to get her hands on some of the portable generators and other sensitive equipment stashed at his base. Charlie practically lived on the military instillation, so if a few things went missing, they were easy enough to cover up. Besides, no one ever accused her of stealing any of it. She was everyone's favorite little girl on base. Especially that younger boy, Preston, who would take any kind of fall for her.
After spending the last few months collecting, stealing, and even finding the pieces they needed, their new device was assembled and ready. It would be their greatest triumph yet, and the best part was yet to come.
Bright tubes crackled and glowed blue as energy trickled round and round inside. In the center, the main core purred happily. Dennis glanced around at the different wires and components, his earlier anger suddenly replaced with fear.
"Okay guys, seriously…let me out."
Salem looked up at him, smiling that same maddening grin of his. Charlie had grown used to it after watching their previous victims go through similar processes. She had even begun to pick up her own.
Salem approached the chair, pulling down the metal cap that had taken a lot of trouble to craft just right for this task. It fit snuggly over Dennis' head, and was locked in place with a strap underneath his chin. Salem turned back to the machine, flipping one last switch. A single charge whined to life inside.
"Now the fun begins…"
Dennis' face drained of color. "Wait—!"
When Salem flicked the switch, a flash of blue light shot through the tube connected to the metal cap, and Dennis' body went rigid. He shuddered, his hands clenching and unclenching. His eyes rolled up into his head.
"Are you sure it's working?" Charlie asked with a frown.
Salem nodded. "Yes, yes!"
Charlie didn't believe him. All it looked like they were doing was shocking him. Shocking was fun and all, but it got boring after awhile. Salem had promised there would be mental trauma involved. But all Dennis seemed to do was twitch and shudder.
"Oh bull shit, you're just shocking him," Charlie finally said, folding her arms and turning away. "If that's all you wanted to do we should have grabbed Jessie. She's got nothing left to fry, anyway."
Charlie glanced back, doing a double take. Dennis wasn't rigid anymore, and his eyes were alert. He gripped the chair fiercely, and his mouth started twitching. He opened and closed it rapidly.
Charlie subdued a giggle.
"KILL ME!" he screeched. "JUST KILL ME!"
"If you insist…" Salem reached for the dial controlling the energy output.
"Salem, you dumbass, don't do that!"
The blue pipe overhead cracked open, spewing bolts of lightning everywhere. Most of it arced down and over Dennis' body, sending him into further spasms. The rest, however, went straight back on the machine, and in the next instance all the pipes were overloading.
Charlie swore. She should have known he would do this. He managed to burn out all of their projects. He just didn't seem to know when he was pushing it too far.
She quickly ran around back, looking for the power-output mechanism. If she killed it here, at least that would spare the machine. Of course, there was the possibility it would overload further, and with all that glass in front of Salem, it was likely he'd get himself cut pretty badly when it all shattered.
Oh well. His fault.
Charlie pulled out the mechanism with one swift jerk. The machine died, and the pipes exploded in brilliant arrays of glass. She heard a muffled scream that was most definitely not Dennis'.
Back around on the other side, she found Salem lying on the floor, grabbing at his face. Next to him she spied a long piece of jagged bloody glass. Oh, this would certainly be interesting.
She straddled him, yanking his hands free and staring at the wound. Yep, he'd definitely need stitches. The glass had cut a nasty gash diagonally across his mouth, completely cutting open the lips where the line passed through.
Charlie laughed. "You look like an idiot," she remarked.
Salem pushed her off of him, stumbling over to his bed where he grabbed one of the sheets to cover the wound.
"Get a towel!" he managed to mumble out.
Charlie obeyed, and as she returned a moment later, she took some time to admire their work on Dennis. He was slumped over in the chair, not unconscious, but unresponsive. His eyes darted about in their sockets, never focusing on anything exactly. Charlie waved a hand in front of them, but it had no effect. She shrugged, thrusting the towel at Salem.
"You better look at in the mirror," she said. "I think your mom is going to freak."
"No shit," he grumbled, heading towards the door. It opened before he got there.
"…We heard some kind of a ruckus up here," came Aunt Renée's voice. She screamed when her eyes landed on a bloody Salem and a brain-dead Dennis.
An hour later, Charlie was sitting alone in the hospital waiting room. Salem had been patched up fairly quick, but the rest of the family was in with the doctors trying to make sense of what had happened to Dennis. She was pleased to hear that so far they couldn't figure out squat.
Her grin disappeared when her Father suddenly sat down on the bench next to her.
Oh great, here we go again…
"Your aunt and uncle just told me a mortifying story, young lady."
Charlie remained unmoved, her original glee replaced now with sulking. She stared down at the white and black tiles across the waiting room floor.
"What the hell were you and Salem building in there?"
She didn't respond. She was surprised when he grabbed her by her shoulders roughly, pulling her off the bench and around to face him.
"Damn it, Charlie! What's happened to you?"
The momentary shock quickly evaporated. Charlie's eyes narrowed as she stared back at her Father.
"What happened to me? What are you saying, Father? You think I've changed?"
He opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated. This made Charlie smile smugly.
He let her go, looking down at the floor sullenly. "I should never have let you two play together," he muttered to himself. "Just matches and gasoline, you two."
Charlie scoffed. "There are much easier ways to make fire, Father."
He sighed again, saying nothing for a long time.
"You do realize that you won't be welcome at your cousin's house again."
Oh, she knew that. She had figured it would happen sooner rather than later. But that would do very little.
"I know, Father," she replied, her voice freakishly calm.
He looked up at her. There was no longer anger in his eyes; just confusion.
"Why, Charlotte? Why?"
Charlie gritted her teeth. "Don't call me that."
"You know it was your mother that picked that name out…"
"Well Mother isn't here, is she?" Charlie had spit the words out before she realized what she was saying. Then again, why should she care? Sure, that hurt look now in Father's eyes bothered her a little, but her frustration with the rest of them was too much. Mother was just like the rest of them, no doubt. Out there somewhere working on some generic committee, trying to make a career for herself.
"Father," she continued, "I'm done pretending Mother means anything to me. She left both of us, and if you want to cry about it, then go ahead. But I'm done. I'm just done."
Father didn't cry. But he didn't say anything on the ride back to the hotel.
The reunion was cut short this year. The excuse first passed on was that a few of the cousins had gotten injured while playing around. But of course, it wouldn't take long for the real story to trickle out in one form or another.
And as Charlie sat back in her room on base, she saw in her last e-mail from Salem that it had been so perfectly grafted as to keep anyone from really understanding what had happened. There would be no recounting of how the two odd-ball children of the family had constructed some kind of instrument capable of inflicting psychosomatic damage. And there would certainly be no recounting of how the little red-haired illegitimate girl had supplied most of the parts to carry it out.
Salem was of course still pissed about Charlie's process of getting him eight stitches. Not her problem, she told him.
One day that recklessness of his was going to get him killed.