Chapter Thirteen: A Mother's Love

Charlie's house was nothing more than a one-story brown box with a shabby roof and smudged, slightly cracked windows. Beyond the long, gravel driveway stood a rundown shed tucked just in front of a broken fence that surrounded the flat property. The house sat alone, apart from neighbors or any civilization that I could see. As I pulled slowly up the driveway, my tires crunching over rough stones, I studied the house and felt a sudden sadness wash over me. Lined along the rocky drive were colorful handmade posters and crosses, symbols left by mourners to share their remorse with Charlie's family. The sight of these homemade gifts formed a lump in my throat, but I swallowed it down as I parked in front of the garage.

From what I could tell, no one was home, unless his family's car was parked indoors. But when I noticed the ramp that substituted for porch steps, I remembered Charlie informing me that his mother could not drive anymore, not since the car accident. Perhaps his family didn't even own a car.

I killed the engine and twisted my hands around the top of my steering wheel, keys dangling between my closed fingers. Studying the house, I focused my gaze on the curtained windows. Everything appeared dark beyond the heavy drapes, but that did not stop me from sliding out of my car and into the crisp afternoon air.

With a nervous swallow, I adjusted my sweater and locked my door before approaching the wooden ramp bolted into the rickety porch. I stepped up, momentarily staring at the hand-carved animal sculptures decorated around the patio. Figures of grizzly bears, eagles, and odd little frogs lined my path, and I grinned, finally assured that I had come to the right place. Charlie had told me about his mom's craft, and I supposed these little wooden creatures were products of her skill.

I hesitated before bringing my fist down on the paint-chipped front door. For some uncomfortable reason, I felt like an intruder. I was about to walk in on a mourning mother and her daughter. Somehow, being here felt wrong.

However, I reminded myself that I had come for Charlie's sake, and that knowledge was all it took for me to rap my fist against the cold door.

For a couple seconds, I heard nothing on the other side, leading me to believe that my original assumption had been correct. Perhaps no one was home.

But soon, tiny tapping footsteps resonated from inside of the house. There was a moment of hesitation as I waited, but after a few cautious seconds, the sliver of a crack parted between the door and the frame.

I couldn't see anyone on the other side, until I looked down. A freckled faced little girl stared up at me with wide, sapphire blue eyes, her expression taut and wary. Her fingers stretched over the side of the door as she peeked at me from behind the crack.

"Um," I said, trying to sound unobtrusive. "Hello." What else was there to say? I hadn't prepared a speech, nor had I expected Charlie's little sister to answer the door.

Instead of replying, the little girl continued to stare at me with fearful eyes, as if she knew answering the door could get her in trouble. I was about to introduce myself when her apprehension got the best of her. Over her shoulder, she shouted in a high-pitched voice, "Mama!"

I shrunk away as she slammed the door in my face and ran deeper into the house. Briefly, I thought to bolt, but my resilience kept me firmly planted on the faded welcome mat. With each breath I took, I reminded myself that coming here was for Charlie's own good. If he spent his days at home, like he told me he usually did, then perhaps he was inside now. I had to know.

Quickly, I knocked on the door again. A moment later, it was opened by a sullen faced woman in a wheelchair: Charlie's mother. Besides her son's, I had never seen such miserable eyes before. The frown on her tightly drawn lips seemed to pull down the wrinkles in her cheeks as well as the droopy bags under her eyes. If she hadn't looked so torn down by grief, she would have been truly beautiful. I stared at her, stunned, while she demanded, "And who are you?"

Her voice was hard, but I could not blame her. With difficulty, I opened my mouth to speak.

Charlie's little sister materialized behind her mother's shoulder, her eyes watching me as if I was some sort of monster.

"Um, hi, Ms. Evans," I squeaked after clearing my throat. "My name is Layla Parker. I know this probably isn't a good time, but I was a friend of your son-"

"Look, before you go on," Ms. Evans snapped, holding up a calloused hand, stopping me midsentence. "I've already requested for well-wishers to give my daughter and I some space during this difficult time. We're not seeing any visitors. I thank you for your concern, but now is a very bad time to be stopping by." A choke clogged her throat as she threw out her last dismissive words. "So if you would please take your sympathies and go, we would be very appreciative."

Without waiting for my reply, she backed up in her wheelchair and began to shut the door, but before she could, I stepped forward in a moment of thoughtlessness and jammed my arm against knob. "Wait, please," I begged just as Ms. Evans glared up at me in frightened alarm. Delicate brown wisps of hair dangled in her eyes as her head shot up.

"Excuse me?" she cried.

I swallowed. "I didn't come here to bother you, ma'am. I know how difficult this time must be for you, and I don't mean to intrude, but I came because I wanted to tell you that I was there that night…"

Where the hell I was going with this statement was beyond me. If anything, Ms. Evans looked ready to find a broom and chase me all the way back to my car. But at the word 'night,' her seething expression dimmed. With her white knuckles clamped firmly around the open edge of the front door, she gazed at me with wide, tear-brimmed eyes and whispered, "Lots of you were there that night, sweetheart."

"But what I meant to say is that I was with your son when he…"

Admitting what happened to Charlie was still so difficult. The all too familiar guilt and pain came rushing back to me as I divulged the truth about the single most regrettable incident of my life, and to the mother of the victim himself. "I was with Charlie when he…"

I was beginning to believe that Charlie's mom understood what I was trying to say. Her hardened face softened in a matter of moments, and just when I thought she was about to collapse with grief, she recovered and widened the crack in the door. Then it hit her. In a stunned whisper, she asked, "Are you the girl?"

I felt a hot wave of remorse tackle me at full force as my mind struggled to find an answer. Not long after, my lips parted and I quietly murmured, "Yes." I had no idea what she was talking about, but I had to do whatever I could to get inside Charlie's house.

Ms. Evans glanced over her shoulder at her daughter before returning her speechless face in my direction. "I suppose you can come in," she muttered, using one hand to rotate her wheelchair out of the entryway.

Momentarily surprised by her sudden change in heart, I thanked her and wobbled over the threshold, my right hand clasped tightly around the strap of my messenger bag.

Charlie's little sister backed away from me and into the shabby living room just off the cramped foyer. The entire house smelled of old wood and cheap, musky potpourri. As I glanced around the dark corners of the dank entryway, I linked eyes with Ms. Evans, who held out an arm, showing me into the living room. "You can take a seat in there if you'd like," she suggested. I nodded once as her eyes scanned every inch of me, as if measuring my trustworthiness. Carefully, I paced into the plain, low-ceilinged, rectangular room and glanced around. The spotted gray-blue carpet matched the floral sofa, where Claire had retreated. Before her was a gnarled wood coffee table littered with coloring pages and a heap of nubby crayons.

Deciding it would be best to give Charlie's sister some space, I turned and inspected the dusty lace curtains, a tiny oak television stand, and a broken bookshelf propped up against the wall in the corner. Piles of ratty old novels sat neglected in front of it and directly beside the last piece of furniture in the room to catch my attention: an old spinet piano.

"Can I get you anything to drink? I'm afraid I don't have much, but there's a little bit of iced tea left in the fridge."

I spun around and directed my gaze at the frail, grief-stricken woman in the wheelchair. "No, please don't go to any trouble. I'm fine," I stressed, horrified that she was accommodating me of all people. However, and much to my dismay, she shook her head and said,

"It's no trouble at all. Please, sit," she instructed, turning towards the kitchen across from the foyer. I almost called after her but refrained. Instead, I felt Claire's disc-shaped eyes watching me closely. I smiled at her, though it was forced. I could see the pain and confusion seeping from her expression.

How terrible, I thought, recalling all that Charlie had told me about her. She's only ten years old and she's already lost her father and her only brother.

"What's your name?" I asked, even though I already knew the answer to my question.

Edgily, Charlie's sister pulled on a bouncy spring of her carmal brown curls and slid onto the carpet before her coloring supplies. Looking away, she mumbled, "Claire."

I nodded. "That's a pretty name. Do you like to color, Claire?" I came around towards the sofa and carefully sat down on the edge of the squishy cushion, a few feet away from her. She picked up a tan crayon and began to run it softly against a blank sheet of paper. Delicately, she drew a circle and bobbed her tiny head.

She had the same sandy, feathery hair as her brother. Even her eyes were just as shockingly blue, except Charlie's had been darker. Forcing a grin, I clasped my hands together and leaned over to examine some of her finished drawings. A sudden tightness seized my chest when I realized most of her drawings were of Charlie.

"Were you friends with my brother?" she inquired while using a new crayon to continue her sketch. I could tell she was drawing another picture of him. I swallowed the lump in my throat and combed a stray sheet of bangs from my eyes.

"Uh, yes I was. You must miss him a lot?"

She nodded mutely. Then she tossed me a look, this one softer than the last. "You're really pretty."

Startled, I tossed her a weak smile and replied, "Thank you," just as Ms. Evans wheeled into the living room with a short glass of iced tea in her hands. Her eyes never left me. Kindly, she handed me the glass and then backed away. I raised my left fist to mouth and coughed while she continued to scrutinize me, almost unnervingly. Then she turned to Claire.

"Honey, why don't you go color in your room for a little while?" she insisted. The little girl didn't object. Quickly, she swept her drawings and crayons up in her knobby little arms and hastened down the hall, out of sight. "She doesn't like to talk about it," the woman explained. "She's already heard so much."

"I'm so sorry for your loss, Ms. Evans," I condoned, clutching my shivering glass of iced tea like a lifeline. Ms. Evans dropped her gaze to her lap and allowed her shoulders to sag helplessly.

"Please, call me Beverly. Or Bev. It doesn't matter."

"Oh, of course," I uttered, sinking my eyes to the swirling brown liquid quivering in my glass. Momentarily, I embraced the chill as if it were some substitute for the real iciness I craved to feel deep down inside.

"But thank you," Beverly acknowledged. "It's been a horrible few weeks, and I have to admit you're the first kid from that party brave enough to knock on my door."

I swallowed as this information washed over me. "Really?" I asked angrily. Beverly nodded.

"Oh yes, I think they were all too afraid, but it doesn't matter. They didn't know my boy. I didn't need to hear their lies."

Her voice caught, but just like the last time, she speedily recovered. I took a moment to examine her. She wore lightweight khakis under a threadbare blue sweater, the outfit of someone trying to make an effort and appear in good spirits. Instantly, I admired her strength.

"So your name is Layla?" she inquired, changing the subject. I forced down a sip of tea, just to be polite, and shook my head.

"Yes ma'am."

"And you were friends with my son?"

"We knew each other a little," I created, hating the idea of lying to Charlie's poor mother, who I could tell craved to talk about her son. Who else did she have to talk to him about? But I couldn't tell her the truth, that being that I'd only become friends with Charlie after his death. "I can't tell you how sorry I am that he's gone," I said instead.

Beverly shuddered and looked away, but before she could reply, a telephone rang from some other room. She sighed and tossed me an apologetic glance.

"Would you excuse me for a moment?" she asked. I nodded full-heartedly as the shrill cry echoed from within the kitchen. In a moment, Beverly retreated, leaving me alone yet again. I faintly overheard the beginning of her conversation but did my best to ignore what she was discussing. Instead, I focused my attention on the atmosphere, every inch of me on alert for signs of Charlie's presence. I even whispered his name, in hopes that he would reveal himself in some invisible way. When he didn't, I set my iced tea down on the coffee table and stood up silently. As cheesy as it sounded, my worried heart told me he was here somewhere. If he hadn't noticed me yet, he would after I took a look around his house.

I hated intruding, especially since I didn't know Beverly or Claire, but instinct told me to search. So with that, I tiptoed into the hallway, which divided the kitchen and living room directly down the middle. Oddly enough, I embraced the dark, windowless hall, hoping to heaven that the opaque space would enable me some glimpse of Charlie. Of course, his ghost only appeared at night like I kept telling myself, but it didn't hurt to hope.

I passed a vacant bathroom and a closed door, which I figured was Claire's bedroom. I could hear her humming on the other side of the door, something that sounded startling like one of the tunes I'd first learned on the piano, but I didn't linger. Instead, I arrived at the end of the hall, two rooms on either side of me. One door was open, the other shut. With a heavy breath, I pushed open the closed door, the rusty hinges squeaking no louder than a sudden whistle.

And then I found myself in Charlie's bedroom.

I didn't expect to feel the way I did upon entering his room. I mean, I'd never known someone who'd died before, so the emotions sweeping over me felt raw and inescapably new. With both hands pressed against my thrumming heart, I stepped onto the same watery blue carpet that lined the house, around a forgotten set of clothes tossed carelessly on the floor, and past a dresser with two drawers hanging open. Slowly, I rotated my gaze, briefly inhaling that warm, musty smell a room acquired when left uninhabited for a long period of time.

In the corner was a twin bed, the sea blue comforter pulled lazily over the mattress in an effort to make it quickly. Behind it was a window shielded by pulled blinds. Along the left wall sat an abandoned desk with a few dusty textbooks stacked on top. I paced over to the desk and dropped my hands onto the chair behind it. One of Charlie's jackets was draped over it, and ever so softly, I stroked the gray fabric. Even though I rarely noticed him at school, I recognized it as an article of clothing he wore often. Then I scanned the other contents on his desk: a lamp, a few abandoned spiral notebooks, and a picture in a frame decorated the surface. Curiously, I reached for the picture and examined it.

It was a photograph of Charlie as a little boy and a man I could only guess to be his father. They looked so alike, with their bright, wide smiles and equally feathery hair. Their gleeful expressions were enough to make tears form in my eyes. A heavy shadow fell over me as I glanced across the room again. Standing inside only reconfirmed the sad truth that Charlie had, in fact, died, but it also reinstated that only a few weeks ago, he'd been alive, a teenager without any concerns about death. I mean, who thinks about dying when there is life to be lived? Before Jack's party, I never did, and I was willing to bet Charlie didn't either.

More than anything, I wanted to know he was safe. Wherever he was, I wished he would find me and send some sort of sign that he was okay and not in some unimaginable danger that my mind had convinced me of. And yet, I didn't feel any shivers of recognition, but I did hear the gentle sound of creaking wheels pass into Charlie's room.

I whipped around, picture frame still in hand. Beverly stilled over the threshold, her tear-filled eyes examining her son's room for what I assumed was the first time since his death.

"Oh, Ms. Evans, I'm sorry," I apologized regretfully as I watched her shaking hands press up against her stomach.

"No, don't apologize," she assured meekly. "I just haven't been back here since that night. I didn't know if I could-" Her voice broke and two fat, crystal tears rolled down her pallid cheeks.

"I should probably go."

"No, please. I know how much you meant to him. Goodness, he was so excited to go to that party. Of course, I didn't know what kind of party it was, but I was sure he was going for a girl he liked."

My mouth dried as I stared at her. "Wait, what?" I asked before I could stop myself. Beverly's eyes flitted to mine, her parted lips rounded in surprise.

"What?" she asked, equally confused.

"He…Charlie only went to that party because of me?"

"Oh, yes. Well, at least he went was for some girl, I'm only assuming it was you. He never told me your name," she replied, watching me carefully.

At that moment, my brittle heart broke into a thousand dusty pieces, careening me into a new wave of self-detest. I mean, the truth had always been hidden away in the back of my mind, but I had never been strong enough to admit it to myself. Charlie had gone to Jack's party to be with me, and then he died protecting me. It was all too much.

Warm, bursting tears poured down my face as I clutched Charlie's old picture frame with quivering hands. Silence settled within the disquieting room, but after a few tearful seconds, Charlie's mother exhaled painfully and said, "You have to understand that my son did the only thing he knew how to do. After his poor father passed, he grew up before his time. He was always so protective of Claire and me. Then I had my accident and was forced to quit my jobs, so he started working to provide for all of us. He had unmatchable strength, something I envied and adored about him. I never asked him to work. He made the decision without even discussing it with me. He was always the gallant one, and never once did he complain about working long nights and enduring school the next day. So seeing him excited about that party brought the seventeen year old out of him, but if I had known where he was going, I would have stopped him. I didn't ask him any questions because I could tell how happy he was.

"I want you to know that he was the kind of person who'd fight to the death for someone he loved. I would give up what little I owned to bring him back, but knowing that he died protecting someone he cared for makes me the proudest mother in the world. I only wish more people knew the loving, caring soul he was. I-" She cut off, her voice consumed with trembling wails. I watched her, horrified. Her hands flew up to her mouth in a moment of weakness. "I just want my baby back."

Tears ran down her face like tiny, crossing streams. Her back shook painfully, head buried in her quavering hands. I couldn't say or do anything, seeing as I was the reason for her misery. I inhaled sharply, doing my best to come up with anything that could provide her some form of comfort.

Desperately, I began, "Ms. Evans, if there is anything I can do, please tell me. What happened to Charlie was my fault and-"

"Oh, Layla, no," she stressed, lowing her hands away from her tear-stained face. She pierced me with her chipped blue eyes, pinning me down with a stare. "You couldn't have known. You didn't know my son like I did. I'm sure if you could ask him, he would tell you that he wouldn't change a thing. That's the kind of man he was."

I stilled, remembering Charlie's words. He had already told me that much. Steadily, I cleared my throat and said, "But I want to help you. That's the kind of person I am."

At first, Beverly appeared shocked by my proposition. To me, it looked as if no stranger had ever offered her this meager amount of kindness. Taken aback, she shook her head, but after a moment of puzzled speechlessness, she stuttered, "Th-that's very kind of you, my dear, b-but I can't think of anything you could do to help."

I thought of Charlie's job at the diner. How were they making ends meet? Of course I couldn't volunteer to give them money, since I didn't have a job or any extra funds, but my mind continued to race with ideas. Then I came up with something.

"Does your daughter play the piano?" I asked, seemingly out of the blue. Charlie's mother arched her eyebrows at me in bewilderment.

"Y-yes, or at least, she taught herself a little. We've had that old thing for years. How did you know?"

I smiled, even though it pained me to stretch the truth. "Charlie told me once. And I noticed you have a piano in your living room. I'm a piano instructor. I tutored children up until Christmas, but after everything that happened, I quit."

I could tell Beverly was trying to follow my train of thought, but I continued before she had the chance to ask me any questions. "I could teach her, if she needs an instructor, that is," I said hurriedly. For all I knew, Claire already took lessons. I was firing out assumptions before I had a chance to think, but I had to find some way to help Charlie's family. I owed it to them.

"You would do that for my daughter?" Beverly whispered, stunned.

"Of course," I nodded.

"I couldn't pay you."

"That's not why I offered. I want to help repay Charlie for his sacrifice. I know this doesn't compare, and it's probably a stupid suggestion, but I have to do something to help."

Beverly's lower lip quivered in gratitude. She shivered once and allowed the last of her tears to leak through her tightly pressed eyelids.

"You don't know what that would mean for Claire. She's been so distressed. Her brother was the one person she looked up to and now with him gone, she hardly speaks to anyone. She hasn't touched that piano since the funeral."

Beverly gazed at me as if I had the gift of reading minds. My offer had been nothing of the sort, just a wild, helpful guess. However, I smiled reassuringly at her nevertheless.

"It would be my pleasure," I insisted. This seemed to lift the heavy sadness from her shoulders. Quickly, she dabbed her tears away with the sleeve of her sweater.

With one rather shaky hand, she waved me into the hallway. "I'll find her right now and tell her. She'll be so happy."

I carefully balanced Charlie's picture frame back on his desk, smiling at the little boy in the photograph. I had been right to come here. Hopefully Charlie would think the same, if I ever saw him again.

Quickly, I followed Beverly out into the presently lit hallway. I closed Charlie's bedroom door behind me, feeling a little less weighted down by my personal grief. With the back of my arm, I wiped the sticky tears from my cheeks as Beverly paused by a thermostat positioned on the wall right before Claire's bedroom. She shivered again, this time harshly.

"It's been so cold in this house lately," she explained, reaching up and turning the dial ever so carefully. I watched her, feeling a chill cross over the back of my neck as well. The upper lobes of my ears felt cold, as if a cool, whispering breath trailed along the edges, freezing as it blew.

Suddenly, my body went rigid as an all too familiar icy sensation overwhelmed me.

I gasped and clamped a hand over my mouth. Then I realized I had to recover, and quickly. Beverly turned around and met my eyes, her forehead creased in concern.

"Is something the matter, dear?"

The roaring drum of my heart pounded against my chest, pulling me into a state of shock and relief. Drawing a smile, I shook my head intensely. "Oh no. Everything is more than alright!"

She studied me for a brief moment, hugged her arms across her chest in an effort to keep the cold at bay, and forced a weary grin. Again, I was amazed by her strength. After all, this woman had lost two of her loved ones over the span of ten years. Resilience had strengthened her heart. Perhaps I could learn a lesson from her.

With that, I trailed behind Beverly's wheelchair as she lightly tapped on Claire's door, all while my mind raced with contentment. Charlie's icy presence lingered over my shoulder, and just as if he was standing behind me in human form, I felt his invisible ghost hovering nearby, his chill striking an odd warmth beneath my skin, one I hadn't felt in a long time.

A/N: Thanks for reading! I hope to update again very soon, but my week is looking pretty busy, what with midterms coming up! However, I typically toss aside my responsibilities and write just to be rebellious, so I may surprise you. As always, make my day and leave a review! MW :)