Author's note: Hello! You may notice Charlie has similar traits to Toby, the main character in one of my other stories. There is a reason for that! They have certain things in common. This story is slightly more mature. There will be references to drug use and abuse. There will probably also eventually be sex. Enjoy.
While his dad counted notes and bound them in stacks, Charlie sat next to him on the couch and made rolls of coins. That was about the limit of his involvement in his dad's business. It was also the only part Charlie enjoyed, besides how his dad always said his work paid their bills and made sure they always had food to eat.
It was relaxing, counting out the correct numbers of coins before going through the familiar motion of pushing them into the wraps and then folding the paper shut. He was building a little pyramid on the coffee table, adding to it with each one he finished.
The sound of the lock splintering through wood as the door crashed open broke the silence.
There was yelling and guns pointed at Charlie's dad, guns pointed at Charlie. Shiny blue helmets with glass visors to protect eyes, dark blue bullet proof vests with 'POLICE' written on them in big white letters.
"Charlie, you idiot, get down!" Charlie's dad shouted from where he was now on the floor.
Charlie was just starting to tentatively raise his hands — was that what you did for the police? — when he was shoved face forward onto the couch by one of the uniformed men and roughly frisked. The police officer yanked Charlie's arms together behind his back, handcuffed him, and then led him out to a waiting police car and shoved him into the back seat.
After that, everything came to Charlie through a kind of fog. A driver entered the car at some point and Charlie asked him where his dad was. The police officer said something, but Charlie wasn't sure whether or not it answered his question so he asked again. And then again, after that, because the words were in his head and they felt like they needed to be said. If the police officer had ever been responding, he stopped by the time he started the car.
Charlie couldn't remember the trip to the police station, but he noticed when they arrived. The police officer who helped Charlie out of the car was gentler than the one who had shoved him into it. Charlie didn't like being touched, didn't like that his hands were restrained, didn't like the noise and the brightness of the police station when they entered. His mind cowered away from the inescapable stimulus.
Someone stuck a white plastic stick with a spongy tip in Charlie's mouth, waited a while, and then took it out again. After that he was taken to a room and seated at a small metal table. It was much quieter in here, but the lights were brighter.
Charlie looked up from his examination of a scratch on the table's surface when two men entered the room a moment later. "Where's my dad?"
"Let's just focus on..." the police officer started to say, but after that Charlie's mind stopped processing the words. His attention had been drawn away by a loose thread on the officer's uniform. Charlie wanted to snap it off. It looked like it tickled.
There were words here and there that worked their way through Charlie's mental fog. Words like cocaine and your father. Even when he heard and understood whole questions, though, finding the words to answer them seemed impossible.
There was a knock on the door before a man stuck his head in without waiting for a response. "Drug test is negative and the dad says the kid's retarded."
One of the police officers swore. "Well, that explains the rocking. Thought he was just high. Hospital?"
The rest of the conversation faded back into the background. Had Charlie been rocking? He hadn't noticed. He wasn't retarded, anyway. He'd done well in school before his mum had died and his dad wouldn't let him go anymore. They gave him an IQ test when he was little and he tested above average. He wasn't retarded.
The lady who took Charlie to the hospital wasn't wearing a police uniform. She spoke to Charlie in a quiet, calm voice. She didn't get angry when he didn't respond like the police officers had.
The doctor who examined him was nice to him too, and he did his best to obey her instructions. The lights were too bright and Charlie didn't like being naked, didn't like her taking pictures.
She seemed particularly interested in Charlie's scars. He had a small collection of them. Some of them he could remember receiving with vivid clarity. There was a long thin one on the back of his wrist from a syringe tip, his punishment for interrupting his dad at the wrong time.
On his forehead, hidden beneath his dark brown hair, was a small, thick scar he'd gotten when one of his dad's friends had tripped him and made him hit his head on the coffee table. His dad had shouted at his friend and kicked him out for that before taking Charlie to the bathroom to clean him up. Charlie had thought it odd that his dad had been so protective after hurting him so many times himself. Perhaps it had been because of all the blood. There had been a lot of blood.
Others Charlie didn't remember receiving at all, like a bad burn on the back of his forearm that appeared to be from the stupidly low hanging element in their oven. It had only happened a couple of years ago, when he was fourteen, but he couldn't remember if someone had done it to him or if he'd accidentally done it himself. He remembered his dad holding his arm under cold water. He remembered staring at the freshly burnt skin and marvelling at how little it hurt. The rest was a blur.
When things were at their worst, Charlie's head tended to fog up. Everything became as distant and insubstantial as a dream, and his memory seemed to stop working properly. That was how things felt then, as they poked and prodded at him in the hospital.
When Travis returned home from school, he was unsurprised to find Robby gone. From the moment he opened the door and found the living room empty, he knew his brother wasn't just in his room. The apartment felt different when he wasn't there.
Artemis, who had been sleeping under a bush outside, followed Travis through the door, trilling happily in greeting. Travis spared her a quick stroke before setting his guitar and school bag aside and gathering up the empty beer bottles Robby had left strewn next to the sofa. He spotted the note on the refrigerator when he went to put them in the recycling, telling him what he already knew. Robby had gone back to Gladstone to be with his girlfriend. It didn't say when he would be back.
Not for a few weeks at least, Travis knew that much. If he was back up there now he wouldn't fly down again before his next shift in the mines. Robby was a fly-in, fly-out miner, which meant two weeks solid of twelve hour work days followed by two weeks off. In theory that meant he should have been with Travis half the time, but Travis was well aware he reminded Robby of the past. Much of the time, Robby preferred the company of his girlfriend.
More and more these days, Robby was reminding Travis of things he'd rather forget too. Unlike Travis, Robby had always had a large, bulky frame, and put on muscle easily. Heavy labour had only strengthened his build. And then with the drinking... He'd never once come anywhere near hitting Travis, but sometimes Travis couldn't help being a little afraid of him. He felt guilty for it, but when he looked at Robby and saw so much of their father he just couldn't help it.
At the end of the year Travis would graduate high school, and after that he planned on getting a job and moving out. He didn't want to be relying on anyone but himself any longer than he had to.
By the time they left the hospital, Charlie had regained the ability to process the world around him. The woman who had taken him from the police station was a youth worker, and she was doing her best to talk up the residential care home Charlie would be staying in for the night. Any positivity that had been gained was quickly shattered once they actually arrived, though.
A door slammed somewhere within the house and Charlie flinched back from the loud sound. The hand the youth worker placed on his shoulder to guide him inside only added to his discomfort.
There was a man picking DVD cases and lego up off the floor, a mess that was clearly the fallout of a tantrum. Charlie silently bent down to help.
Charlie hadn't expected the praise they gave him, hadn't been seeking it. Cleaning up a mess had simply been the only clear and logical thing to do in this very confusing new world. He was glad to create a little order amongst all the chaos.
As soon as the DVDs were back on the stand and the lego was back in the box, Charlie found himself lost in a sea of possibilities and unknowns again. Before he could get too anxious, Charlie turned his attention back to the lego and began sorting them by colour and size. When he heard a door open and then slam shut, Charlie hunched his shoulders but didn't turn around.
"Those are mine!" a prepubescent male voice shouted, and Charlie's hands stilled. He looked over his shoulder to see the angriest ten year old he'd ever encountered. "You let him touch my things?"
"He was just helping me tidy up your mess," the man told the boy, his voice containing only the very edge of frustration. "It's lego, anyway. He can't hurt it."
The boy's emotions weren't ones that could be cooled with logic, though, Charlie could see that quite plainly. Charlie had been that ten year old boy once, might still have been in some ways if it hadn't been slapped out of him, converted into disorientating fear.
While the man worked on calming the boy down, the youth worker who had brought him here showed him to the room he would be staying the night in. Only the night, she told him, promised him. Just one night and then they would find a family member for him to stay with or find a foster family, a nice one, a calm one, where he would be safe and cared for. Charlie didn't speak, just nodded his understanding until she got a call on her mobile phone and told him she had to leave.
Charlie lay down on the small single bed in the corner of the bare bedroom and wrapped himself up in the blankets. Everyone was acting like he'd been saved, but all Charlie wanted was to see his dad, to go home. Maybe it wasn't always safe, maybe a lot of the time it was pretty terrible, but he knew the rules there, he knew exactly what to do and what not to do. Now he couldn't even process the present, let alone predict the future.
Someone came to check on Charlie a while later, and then left when he pretended to be asleep. Maybe he could simply dodge interaction that way until someone came to take him somewhere else.
As it turned out, he could not. It wasn't long before someone else came in again, and this time they 'woke' him.
"Hey Charlie, I'm Anna," a woman Charlie hadn't seen before told him as she emptied a bag of clothing on the floor. "Clothes for you. It's just second hand shit, but don't worry, it's been carefully selected to not make you look like a complete dope."
All the other people Charlie had encountered since he'd been taken from his father and his home had spoken to him like he was a wounded animal, at least after things were cleared up with the police. He preferred Anna's approach. He also preferred her sense of style. All the other people had been dressed in ways he would describe as professional, but this woman had bright purple boots that went halfway up her calves and dreadlocks dyed to match.
"All of my things are second hand pretty much," Charlie said as he slid off the bed, onto the floor, to sort through the clothing. "Will I get my things back?"
"Well, from what I heard..." Anna made a face as she sat down on the other side of the clothes pile. "Yeah, you might wanna start replacing your crap."
After all that had happened this was such a small thing, just a tiny blip compared to everything else. He didn't even own many things, and none were irreplaceable. But... "I need my music, though. Can they get that?"
Anna leant forward and propped her chin up on one hand. "What music?"
"My walkman, I need it to..." Charlie flapped his hands, the best way he could express what would happen if he didn't have his music to calm him. On the inside, of course, where he needn't bother anyone but himself and anybody annoyed by his unresponsiveness. Nobody else had to care.
"Wow. Who even owns a walkman anymore? Good luck replacing that," Anna said. When she saw Charlie's distress, she added, "You should consider an upgrade. Here." Anna patted a few of her jacket pockets down until she located what she'd been searching for and pulled out a small blue iPod. She handed it to Charlie. "I've been meaning to get a new one anyway. I'll get the charger and data cable to you before you go tomorrow."
Charlie stared, utterly baffled, at the gift he'd been given. Why are you being so nice to me? he wanted to ask, but that sounded too suspicious even in his head. He didn't think she had any hidden motives, but... why? He was so busy being confused that he didn't remember that he should have thanked her until after she'd ruffled his hair and left the room.
It took Charlie a few minutes to figure out how to turn the iPod on, but after that the controls were fairly intuitive. Charlie pulled his knees up against his chest and rocked back and forth on the bed. It wasn't his music, his familiar and safe songs.
As he listened, though, he forced himself to relax, to accept the newness. New could be good, he reminded himself. He loved getting new music. He was just upset because he wanted predictable sounds just then, but this wasn't bad music. Some was a bit too loud for Charlie's tastes, but he could skip past the songs he didn't like far more easily using the iPod than he had been able to when all he'd had was his walkman.
The sound was far crisper and cleaner, too. Even when his tapes had been brand new they hadn't sounded this good, and by now even the best of them had started to get parts that skipped and crackled. Finding new tapes had been getting more and more difficult in recent years. Nobody made them anymore and even the second hand store he relied on for most of his purchases had stopped selling them.
Charlie shut his eyes and flopped back on the bed, letting the soothing sounds of the music wash over him and erase the world. Everything felt broken, like it could never be okay again, but how many times had he felt like that before? More than he could count.
Then again, when was the last time he could have accurately described things as 'okay'? Not since long before his mum had died, and even then... Sometimes it felt like he was inherently faulty, like no matter what he did or what his life situation was, he was and would always be incapable of finding any kind of peace in the world.
Charlie had been told time and time again that he was bad, stupid, retarded, all number of negative things. It was hard not to believe it. It was hard to hold onto the things he remembered his mother saying, all the times she'd told him what pretty blue eyes he had and how he was her clever boy. How just because he was scared a lot didn't mean he wasn't brave.
People came in to check on Charlie periodically, but he shut his eyes and ignored them and they went away. Eventually he fell asleep like that, stirring sometime later just long enough to switch the music off when a screamy song came on before drifting off again.