i. A Camcorder
Charlotte Lu remembers two things about her seventh birthday party: the matching dresses she and Lizzie got forced to wear and the camcorder her father used to record the event. The dresses are pale green and she and Lizzie have just decided that their favorite colors are red and purple, so they're not happy, to say the least. No one knows what their mothers were thinking.
The irritation fades when her father shows her the camcorder. It's a black machine with buttons and a lens that looks like a whale's eye. "This is like making a movie, but with people we know. We'll be able to watch this film when you're twenty-five. It's like watching your memories, but you can share them with other people." Then he ruffles Charlotte's hair and says, "I intend to share them with any boy you bring home."
"I like cake more than boys," Charlotte declares, which is probably why her father lets her have a turn filming the party. She feels like she has superpowers: whatever she points the camcorder at, she'll be able to watch later. "The grown-ups are all just talking," Charlotte notes aloud. "Maria is sleeping and Lydia is putting cake in her hair. I finished my cake. I want to open presents."
"HEY!" Lizzie shouts, leaping in front of the camera. Lizzie is always one of two people: the girl quietly reading a book or the girl pretending to be in a book. "Hey, what's that?"
"I'm making a movie," Charlotte answers, beaming. "Want to be in it?"
"Want to make a movie about Anne of Green Gables?"
"Do I get to be Diana?"
When Charlotte and her father watch the film later, it turns out that half of their dramatic reenactment of the dramatic reenactment of Elaine is out of focus, but that doesn't stop Charlotte from asking for a camcorder for every birthday and Christmas until her parents think she's old enough to own one.
ii. A Home in the Right Place
"You could duct tape yourself to the wall and then no one would want to buy your house," Lizzie suggests. Her eyes brighten. "I could do the taping! Then I could tape myself to you!"
"Tape comes off," Charlotte says, dragging the toe of her sneaker through the dirt. She's going to be living somewhere else by Christmas. She's probably moving a million miles away from the swings in Lizzie's backyard and her mother keeps crying every time she talks to Lizzie's mom and everything is wrecked. She doesn't even want to watch the movie she and Lizzie made about women's suffrage for school, because she's leaving her best friend.
"My mom said no when I asked if you could come live with us," Lizzie says, leaning back in her swing until she's almost upside down. "Then she said, 'I do declare, Lizzie Bennet, you must understand there are circumstances a woman cannot change.'"
"Your mom does not have a Southern accent."
"She does in my head."
When Charlotte's parents tell her and Maria that they're looking at a house in a whole other state, Charlotte makes up her mind to take drastic action. The sufragettes made the news with their protests, so all she has to do is film a protest and send it to the news station, right?
Charlotte and Lizzie write the protests together, put Jane in charge of the costumes, and tell Maria and Lydia to look small and sad when the camcorder is on. Jane makes them beautifully lettered sashes and, after Lizzie makes her, "borrows" some of her mother's hats. (Mrs. Bennet might not be a Southern lady, but she does have an unusually large hat collection, unusual due to both the size of the hats and the sheer number she possesses.) Right before Charlotte hits record, Lizzie pinches Lydia, which sets her off crying, and then Maria has to join in, too.
"This is a moving protest," Charlotte says, folding her arms in front of the camcorder. "Ready?"
Their chant is a simple one: "N-O means no! We won't go! N-O means no! We won't go!" They're about five minutes into the protest, really getting into the spirit with fist pumps and feet stomping, when Charlotte's mother opens the door.
The chanting falls silent. "We won't go," Charlotte says, folding her arms, though she can't look at her mother.
All of a sudden, she's enveloped in a hug. "We're going to work something out," her mother promises, and Charlotte blinks back tears. It would be strange to cry from being so happy, even though people do it in the movies all the time.
iii. Some Quality Time
Charlotte is in charge of holding the umbrella because she's the oldest, which means that she can drip water on Maria on purpose as they walk home from the bus stop. It's a preemptive strike for the afternoon, since Charlotte is stuck going back to the apartment instead of over Lizzie's. The entire Bennet family has the flu, which honestly sounds better than being crammed indoors with an obnoxious eight-year-old. Maria kicks puddle water at her in retaliation, speaking of "obnoxious."
When they get home, Charlotte throws the door open, kicks off her shoes, and stomps into the bathroom to peel off her now-soaked pants. Muttering, she dries off her legs with a towel and drapes her pants over the shower curtain to dry. She has homework to do, but it's Friday and there is a mug of hot chocolate with her name on it. (Or at least there's a mug with her name literally on it, the product of a stint at summer camp, and she's about to fill it with hot chocolate.)
Fortified with her favorite pair of fuzzy pajama pants and a steaming mug of hot chocolate, Charlotte enters the living room and settles in front of the family desktop. She has an hour and a half before her parents get home from work, which is maybe enough time to edit the last three minutes of footage for "Missed Opportunities II," which pays tribute to the cool stopped rain effect she saw in a Michelle Branch music video. Remaking the music video would be boring--Charlotte is much more interested in what people are saying than what they're singing--but it's cool to think about the words that people don't hear when they're talking to each other. It's like a secret language.
Of course, by the time the computer is done booting up, Maria has flopped onto the couch, remote control in hand.
Charlotte sighs and pulls out her headphones, but can't resist saying, "Please tell me you're not going to watch that awful Harry Potter movie again."
At the words "Harry Potter," Maria's head practically spins around like something out of a horror movie. "The movies always leave a lot out! You need to read the books!"
"I don't want to read the books. I want to work on my own much better videos."
"Oh." Maria's shoulders hunch. "Um, I was thinking that tonight I wanted to watch Lord of the Rings. Or Moulin Rouge, but I really like the hobbits and the elves."
Charlotte glances at the computer screen, where she's opened her projects folder, then back at her sister, who's staring at her with huge dark eyes. "There's some pretty cool camera work in those," she allows. "Make me popcorn and I'll even tell you what forced perspective is."
"Deal!" Maria exclaims, bouncing off the couch.
Later, when Charlotte is curled up with her sister, another mug of hot chocolate, and the remains of a bowl of popcorn, she knows how she's going to end her video. Peter Jackson deserves some of the credit, but her sister is the one who says, "It's like the elves live outside of time except for the times that are really important. Then they show up."
Charlotte replies, "The elves are smart like that."
iv. A Romance
There's a dispiriting lack of correlation with real life and any kind of media. Crushes begin with close-ups on a single object of affection, then zoom out to show shy mutual glances between subject and object. There's a nice soundtrack and some silly misunderstandings that are followed by kissing. High school romances follow a slightly modified narrative trajectory, but Charlotte isn't really disappointed that real life lacks a clique of evil girls and boys in letterman jackets. She just wants a little consistency to her storyline.
If there's a story about developing two crushes at the same time, one on a boy in your biology class and the other on your best friend's sister, Charlotte has yet to hear of it.
"Just keep going. This is gonna be so great."
Charlotte raises her hand halfway, about to brush her hair out of her eyes, then catches herself mid-nervous gesture and forces her hands back into her lap. She'll have to edit that out later. "This was the worst idea I've ever had and I don't know why I'm participating."
"Because it's romantic," Maria says, giving her a thumbs up. "I don't blame you for not asking Lizzie 'I wear black on Valentine's Day' Bennet for help with this."
"I don't need help!"
"Well, clearly you do, otherwise you wouldn't have let me talk you into making a video love letter." Maria flashes her a smile that's more terrifying than adorable thanks to the glint of her braces. "There is no way that a guy could get a present like this and not fall for you right away."
Out of desperation, Charlotte told her sister an edited version of the truth. She has real doubt that even someone as nice as Steve would respond well to some girl handing him a DVD of all her somewhat confused feelings. This so-called video love letter is more like a rehearsal for having an actual conversation with the object of her affection. One of them, at least. She doesn't even know which one to pick. Steve barely knows she exists, but Jane is, well, a girl, and that's a whole sexuality crisis to have on top of honors classes and studying for the SAT and working on her portfolio.
"I make excuses to talk to you," Charlotte says into the camera. This time, she doesn't catch herself fixing her hair until it's too late. "I think you're nice and smart and funny and you seem to enjoy talking to me. We should hang out. In the dating kind of sense." She sighs. "Maria, this was the worst idea ever. Turn the camera off."
"If you do this in real life, you should bat your eyelashes more," Maria says, but shuts off the camera regardless. "I still think this would have worked."
In the end, Charlotte doesn't have to choose between the two because there's no choice to make. Jane's new boyfriend becomes Lizzie's favorite verbal punching bag. She and Steve have a handful of conversations that go nowhere. Charlotte feels strange for not being devastated, for shrugging the whole silly few weeks off. It's just easier.
It's watching herself on the recording that convinces her that this is for the best. There's no grand passion there, no story, just a girl made confused and uncomfortable by feelings. There's no need for a spotlight.
v. A Vision
Before Lizzie can even drape her scarf and coat over the back of her seat at "their" coffee shop table, she's already offering suggestions. "You could make something about a college senior searching for inspiration."
"Right, because that's never been done before." Charlotte rolls her eyes but adds the idea to her notebook anyway. It's better than having nothing at all.
Lizzie wags a finger. "You just need a grade! It doesn't have to be the most original thing in the world. I know your work ethic is even more ridiculous than mine, but your lack of sleep is turning you into the world's cutest racoon."
"I can quit anytime I want," Charlotte replies, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup protectively. "But seriously, everything that I can think of is either self-consciously avant-garde or the most basic, pedestrian thing in the world. Some of us don't like to improvise half of our final projects the night before they're do."
"I maintain that my project was in the spirit of the research topic, which was improvisational comedy, if you recall."
"I recall babysitting you through your energy drink comedown. Maybe I'll film a documentary about how freaking weird you are."
Lizzie throws a crumpled straw wrapper at her. "Call me weird all you like, but you know that I'm the normal one in my family. Even Jane is weird for being so supernaturally nice. Lord knows it will land her a husband before the rest of us ever lay eyes on a gentleman of good accord." Lizzie is known for launching into her impersonation of her mother at the least provocation. She's perfected her art over the years, though her sense of comedy is occasionally inverse to her sense of reality.
There's a thread of something there, though. Charlotte drains the last of her now-lukewarm coffee, buying a moment of silence to pull at it. "What if we made a documentary about your crazy family?" she asks. "Not like an actual documentary, but one where you did your impressions?"
"Yes. I have been waiting for this question for my whole life," Lizzie says instantly, face lighting up in a grin. "You're a genius!"
"I do what I can." Charlotte lifts her empty coffee cup and raises her eyebrows.
"Fine, fine, I'll get you another."
Lizzie ends up with the flu for finals week and they mutually declare that they should film the project under more optimal conditions. But the spring semester is too full of end-of-college commitments that all clash with one another, not to mention grad school applications and interviews. Charlotte graduates magna cum laude with the sun at her back and a portfolio dubbed "impressive" by one interviewer. Charlotte's proud of the interview series she did back in sophomore year, but everything else plays back like she forgot to splice in the last few seconds, like it's not quite complete.
vi. A Declaration of Independence
Unpacking proves to be just as unpleasant and dusty as packing. Charlotte tells herself it's just the dust making her eyes water, anyway, and fusses over her pens, de-sorted in the moving process. Outfitting her office is only a formality; she's already passed along three drafts of some new company policies. It doesn't really matter if the pictures on her desk are aligned just so.
"Damn it," Charlotte mutters. She grabs a tissue and blows her nose, a sound too loud for a still Sunday morning at the office. She should have waited. Sleeping in and watching TV would be more of a distraction from what feels like every cliche movie break-up ever. She hasn't lit any pictures of Lizzie and herself on fire, but there are no pictures of them gracing her work desk.
Highlighters, paper clips, sticky notes, and the Doctor Who mousepad Maria gave her--they all have their own place. Charlotte runs a finger over the blinds and it comes back clean. The custodial staff did a nice job getting her office ready. She'll have to bring in thank you donuts tomorrow.
There's really no reason to stay. After she takes the boxes to the recycling, her office will be prepped for tomorrow. Still, Charlotte lingers in desk chair, making minute adjustments to the arrangement of her picture frames. Back in Girl Scouts, she and Lizzie made matching rainbow-colored picture frames with a liberal dusting of glitter and a "Best Friends" inscription. She changes the picture of them every few years. It's due for an update soon, since the most recent picture is them after college graduation. Or it was due for an update.
The worst part is that it was easy. It was so easy once she snapped, once she yelled at Lizzie and stormed out and made a phone call to Ricky Collins in the span of two hours. (There were a few steps leading up to the last item on the list, but they mostly involved pacing her room and throwing the occasional pillow.) No one stopped her from seizing an amazing opportunity for her career; no one stopped her from walking out on her best friend. There's no one to direct her creativity, or at least no one to direct it solely toward an avenue that stars somebody else.
For the first time in her life, Charlotte feels free.
The cost is just something she has to consider while she puts the pieces of her new life in place.
vii. A Homecoming
"This party is going to give us material for weeks to come," Charlotte observes as Lydia skids past them in socked feet, singing Katy Perry at the top of her lungs and plastic crown askew.
Lizzie throws her arms around her; she's a few glasses of wine into Lydia's "almost legal!!!!!" birthday party. "I love that there's an us again. Can I just say that we are the bestest friends in the history of time? It took us 24 years to have a real fight and then we made up back to normal!"
"We're agreeable people, bestie," Charlotte says, slinging an arm around Lizzie's waist, in part to help her stand. She loves Lizzie, she does, and she's so thankful that they're together again, but she doesn't agree with Lizzie entirely: this is better than normal. She can name all the times Lizzie has admitted to being wrong because there are so few of them.
"You guys are so cuuuuute," Lydia coos, sliding past them from the other direction. She has a glass of suspicious-looking punch in one hand, probably because around now her mother abandons all pretense of legality and starts doling out alcohol left and right. Charlotte knows her mother is right beside her, tipsy enough to think that she can mix drinks. "Once Jane gets here after her super sucky delayed flight, all the girls of the Bennet-Lu clan will be here and we can totally paint the town red! Or purple; I like purple. Why is it always red?"
"Child, it is the color of the devil!" Lizzie says and presses a hand to her forehead. "Lord have mercy on your wretched no longer teenage soul."
"But see, this is our time to dance. It's the way it's always been," Charlotte half-quotes, because the so-called Bennet-Lu clan's youngest generation went through a serious dance movies phase in fifth grade.
"Ohmigod, we have to put on Footloose! Mary, come here, it's an emergency!" Lydia shrieks, and runs off to the iPod dock.
Charlotte pokes Lizzie in the ribs. "Don't you dare pretend not to know the dance."
"But I'm drunk and I'm not good at choreographed dances!"
"Yeah, but Maria and I are. Come on."
Lydia is still skipping through tracks on her iPod when Jane walks in the door, full of a thousand apologies for circumstances out of her control, as usual. Then Lydia finds the song and rushes them all onto the floor, shouting incoherently. Charlotte grins at Maria from across the room, who makes a beeline for their group.
"Ready for this?" Maria asks.
"I'm gonna die," Lizzie says.
"I'll try not to spin you around too much," Charlotte promises. That earns her another drunken hug, which kind of interferes with the choreography Maria, Jane, and Lydia are throwing down, but she doesn't mind. There's room for a little revision.