Charlie Thomas would never forget the night his father abandoned his family.
He had been ten years old. The night was warm and sticky, the air outside interminably still, devoid of any comforting breeze. It was midnight, or thereabouts; he and his siblings were supposed to be tucked safe in their beds, well on their way to deep and restful sleep...and that might have happened, if it hadn’t been so hot and sticky, if the air conditioner hadn’t picked that very night to go on the fritz, if their ceiling fans made any sort of noise other than the quiet, whispery wisps of air funneling efficiently through the room.
But no. There was nothing to distract him into sleep, no matter how he twisted or turned and closed his pillow around his ears. His parents were arguing again – something that had been happening with frightening regularity in those days. Every ugly word that passed between them rang through the paper-thin walls that separated their bedrooms. It didn’t matter what they were fighting over; it was always loud and aggressive and scary, full of threats and admonishments and tears.
He’d been surprised then, when it suddenly stopped with the slam of a door. The house was eerily quiet for a long moment, only to be shattered by the muffled slam of another door. Charlie lay as still as he possibly could, clutching his sheets to his chest, his heart beginning to pump furiously against his ribs. He flinched when he heard the roar of the engine in his father’s car, the gears straining as it was thrown in reverse, backed out of the driveway, switched into first, and zoomed down the length of Bradford Court.
And then – silence.
Charlie’s thoughts were muddled and hazy, his annoyance and frustration over his parents’ constant bickering growing into a sense of real fear and panic. They’d argued, yes, long and aggressive and tearful and scary, but they’d never hit each other, and neither of them had ever stormed out of the house. Was his father coming back, or was he gone for good? What had finally pushed him over the edge?
What about poor David Michael, who’d been wailing from his crib during the entire exchange? Could he really walk out on his newborn child like that, even for just a few minutes?
The faint sound of sniffling had brought him back to the present. Charlie sucked in a breath, trying to determine if it was his mother, but no…it was coming from inside his room. “Sam?” he whispered softly, relaxing his grip on his sheets.
The sniffling intensified.
Charlie pushed his sheets away, swinging his feet over the side of his bed. He’d shared a room with his younger brother in those days, the two of them alternating between bunks – he’d been on top that evening. “Sam, is that you?”
“Uh-huh,” came the very quiet reply.
Carefully, Charlie climbed down the ladder on the side of the bunk, his eyes closing momentarily as he found himself in the funnel of circulating air directly underneath the ceiling fan. He hopped down the last step, sinking into the mattress of the other bed near his brother’s feet. “You okay?” he asked quietly, narrowing his eyes as he tried to make out his brother’s form in the trails of moonlight drifting in from the far window.
“Daddy left,” Sam replied, his breath hitching on the back of a sob.
Charlie bit his lip. “Yeah,” he sighed, reaching for his brother’s hand and squeezing it.
Sam sat up then, bringing his knees to his chest. “I’m scared,” he admitted, wiping his cheeks with his free hand. “What if he doesn’t come back?”
Charlie scooted a bit closer, wrapping his arm around his brother’s shoulders and pulling him close. He didn’t know what to say – he was scared, too – but he knew he had to stay calm, and be strong, for Sam’s sake. Sam had always been really sensitive to their parents’ struggles, trying to be the little crowd-pleaser, to keep them smiling and happy as much as he could. Peacekeeping duties were a lot for an eight-year-old to carry, even self-imposed, and Charlie hated to hear his brother cry.
He never cried until it was hopeless.
Their door had creaked open just then, and Charlie looked up swiftly, a little afraid it was their mother. Instead, he saw the scrawny little form of their younger sister, Kristy, long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders as she dragged a blue blanket behind her.
“Charlie?” she called softly. “Sam?”
Sam tightened the brace of his arms around his legs, burying his face in his knees. Charlie knew he didn’t want Kristy to realize he was crying, lest it upset her even more. With one final squeeze, he let go of Sam’s shoulders, standing up and crossing the room to where Kristy stood in his door.
“Come on,” he directly softly, pulling her inside and closing the door as silently as he could. He led her back to the bottom bed of the bunk, sitting next to Sam again and pulling Kristy down on his other side. Kristy complied, pulling her blanket up and draping it over the three of them before leaning against Charlie.
“Daddy left, didn’t he?” she asked bluntly, curling a large portion of the blanket around herself.
Charlie slid one arm around her shoulders, and the other around Sam’s, who was still crying, albeit silently. “Yeah,” he confirmed.
In the faint light from the moon, he saw her scrunch up her face, and wondered for a wild moment if she was going to cry as well. “What are we going to do?” she inquired instead, her tone somewhere between weariness and frustration.
Charlie tightened the brace of his arms around his siblings. “We’re going to stick together,” he said firmly. “No matter what happens.”
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Kristy asked in a very small voice.
“He has to,” Sam insisted, looking up for the first time since their sister had entered the room. “He’s our daddy – he has to come back!” His eyes flickered up to Charlie’s face. “Doesn’t he?”
Charlie shrugged. A couple of kids in his class had divorced parents, or only lived with their mothers. He didn’t want that to happen to his own family, but at the same time, he hated the fact that their parents fought day in and day out. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t, he reasoned muddily, before immediately feeling guilty for even considering such a thing.
“Doesn’t he?” Sam repeated, his eyes a little wild with desperation.
“I don’t know,” Charlie finally said. “Look, it’s late – we ought to get some sleep. And who knows? Maybe when we wake up in the morning, he’ll be back, and this will all be just a bad dream.”
Sam flopped down in the bed, pulling his sheets up around him. “Okay,” he replied happily, dutifully closing his eyes.
Kristy tugged on Charlie’s arm. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?” she asked.
He smiled as he ruffled her hair. “Of course,” he told her. “You can even have the top bunk.”
She gave him a grateful look, standing up to climb the ladder to the mattress overhead. Charlie stood as well, pulling his own blanket down and curling up with it on the floor. He sighed a long, deep sigh and hoped to God that his father wouldn’t prove them all wrong come daylight.
Charlie Thomas never forgave his father for abandoning his family that hot, sticky, summery night.
Even now, seven years later, every time he thought of him, he burned with anger and resentment. One explosive fight, one threat followed through, and he was out of their lives for good, never to be seen or heard from again.
His childhood had effectively ended at ten. He’d had to grow up quick, taking responsibility for himself and his younger siblings, helping his mother out with chores and bills and childcare. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d just been able to spontaneously go out with his friends without worrying about the laundry list of responsibilities he had to cover at home.
Not that his father’s abandonment hadn’t had its advantages. Like, allowing his mother to meet a really wonderful man like Watson Brewer. A man who was mature enough to handle his responsibilities at his job and at his home.
A man who welcomed four stepchildren rather abruptly into his life.
Charlie stood in the doorway of his new room. It was absolutely enormous, twice the size of the one he’d shared with Sam in their house on Bradford Court, and it was all his, to do with as he wished. He’d done his best, but it looked sparsely furnished, with only half his belongings scattered about. It had been surprisingly hard to separate his stuff from his brother’s during the move, and it was equally difficult to get used to the idea that they wouldn’t be living like sardines anymore. Sam’s room was down the hall, and Kristy’s was practically in another wing.
He didn’t think he’d have such freedom until college.
A knock sounded on the door. Charlie looked back, his expression melting into a smile as he spotted his brother in the hall. Sam poked his head in, surveying the room with a critical eye.
“Looks good,” he declared, leaning against the door.
“Thanks,” Charlie replied, taking another look around.
After a long moment, Sam spoke again. “Feels weird, doesn’t it?” he mused.
Charlie nodded. “We shared a room for twelve years,” he reminded him. “Didn’t think I’d ever get rid of you.”
Sam snorted. “Ditto,” he replied. “Maybe now I can finally have a social life.”
Charlie shot him a wry look. “I was never the one who stood in your way on that particular path.”
Sam’s smile began to fade as his eyes drifted out over the middle distance. “Did you ever think this day would come?” he asked quietly.
Charlie knew he was talking about more than just their now separate rooms. “No,” he admitted, “but I guess I’m glad it did.” He shrugged. “I want Mom to be happy, and Watson definitely makes her happy.”
“Definitely,” Sam echoed.
They were silent for a moment; so silent, in fact, that Charlie was surprised when he turned around and realized Sam was still loitering in his doorway, his face the color of a dark, dusky rose.
Charlie lifted a brow. “You okay?” he queried.
“This is going to sound dumb,” Sam said in a rush, his cheeks darkening, “but would you mind if I – spent the night in here with you? For old times’ sake?”
Charlie couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I suppose I could spare the space,” he mused wryly, punching his brother playfully in the shoulder. “Sure. Come on. It’ll be a riot.”
Sam’s expression melted with relief. “Cool,” he replied, rushing off down the hall to fetch his blanket and pillow. He had just arranged his stuff on the floor while Charlie lounged on his bed, flipping through the channels of the TV, when another knock sounded at the door. The brothers paused, exchanging a glance.
“Come in,” Charlie called, lowering the remote.
Kristy pushed open his door, looking sheepish. “Sounds like a party,” she noted. “Mind if I join you?” She walked in before either could protest, a pillow under one arm and a blue blanket trailing behind her, and put her stuff on the floor near Sam’s.
Charlie slid off his bed, settling himself between them, draping one arm around his brother’s shoulders and the other around his sister’s. “It’s only fitting, I suppose,” he remarked, “considering this is our first real night in this house.”
Kristy leaned against him. “We have to stick together,” she reminded them, “no matter what happens.”
“I’m glad we made that pact,” Sam said simply, drawing his knees to his chest. “I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”
“Me, neither,” Kristy agreed.
“Me, neither,” Charlie echoed.
They shared a secret, sad smile.
Charlie tightened the brace of his arms around them. It hadn’t always been fun, or easy, and they hadn’t always gotten along, but he wouldn’t trade his siblings for anything in the world.
Not even a relationship with his father.