Author's Note: I definitely recommend reading chapter sixteen again before moving onto this chapter, considering it's been a good two years since I've posted. What can I say? I've had a busy two years. As always, many thanks to Reibish for the beta.
A trumpet sounded in Charlie's ear, and he groaned, pulling the pillow over his face. That muffled the sound, but didn't block it entirely. Tiny footsteps marched in tandem on the carpet, and then Charlie woke with a start as something crashed into the bed frame. He opened his eyes, and after a second, managed to focus enough to make out the tiny grappling hook lodged into the side of his bedpost. As he watched, the clockwork marching band from his cuckoo clock began to scale it in a single-file line. Then he blinked, and there were two lines. Then one again. The small part of his brain that could still think wondered how they managed to climb and play at the same time.
As they climbed, the noise grew louder. Charlie whimpered, and crossed his arms over his ears. His head hurt, his throat felt dry, and he thought he was going to throw up. The band marched across the bed and onto his pillow, their music echoing inside his head. A trio of tiny drum majors beat out a rhythm beside his ear. Charlie swatted at them, trying to knock them down, but the three coalesced into one in front of him, and he missed. The drum major gave him a whack across the knuckles without losing a beat. Charlie felt the sting of it after a second. He wondered if her were still drunk. With tremendous effort, he propped himself up on his elbows and squinted at the clock. The numbers swam in front of his eyes before he managed to make sense of them.
Eight o'clock. Time for class. The marching band finished Revele and started in on a Soussa march. Charlie collapsed back onto the mattress and clapped his hands. Three times for stop. At once, the band quieted. With a last, sullen look, the drum major turned and started back towards the grappling hook. The rest of the band followed. Charlie pulled the pillow over his head and fell asleep.
* * *
Hours later, Charlie woke again to the throbbing beat of a stereo from the floor above. Every drumbeat pounded into his head, and he grimaced, raising himself up dizzily to look at the cuckoo clock in the corner. One o'clock. Charlie swallowed, wondering why his throat was so dry. Water. He needed water. He looked at the glass he normally kept by his bedside, but it was empty. He must have drained it during the night. With a sigh, he clumsily pushed back the covers and sat, touching his feet to the floor. Goosebumps rose on his skin as it met the cool air, and he frowned, looking for his robe. At last, he found it, still hanging neatly on the door where he'd left it yesterday morning. His eyes focused on it, and he stood, then doubled over as his stomach heaved. Robe forgotten, he threw open the door to his room and ran to the bathroom in his boxer shorts. He gripped the sides of the toilet bowl and retched into it, feeling tears come to his eyes as his stomach emptied itself. The vomit burned his throat. When the heaving finally stopped, Charlie shakily stood, only to catch sight of spiky blonde hair in the bathroom mirror. Amy stood in the doorway, glaring at him. All at once, the night before came back to him: Isabelle kissing him, screaming at him, leaving the apartment and slamming the door. Amy's eyes burned with accusation, and all at once, Charlie felt sick again. When he looked up from the toilet a second time, Amy was gone. He wondered what Isabelle had told her. Did she know about his relationship with Wonka?
Shakily, Charlie stumbled into the living room. Amy sat cross-legged on the sofa, flipping through a science textbook. She didn't look up at Charlie.
"Um, hi," he said, uncertainly.
She didn't answer. "Did Isabelle --?" he started, and Amy slammed the book shut, startling him.
"Isabelle," she snapped, "didn't come home last night. I haven't seen her all day. She's not answering her phone calls."
iAnd what do you intend to do about it?/I The question hung unspoken in the air.
Charlie swallowed, wishing his throat weren't so dry. He couldn't tell if the tightness in his stomach came from guilt or the vomiting. Amy was glaring at him again, and he swallowed, realizing he was still in his boxer shorts. Aside from his mother, nobody had seen him in his underwear before. He hugged himself.
"I'm sorry," he offered quietly.
Amy scowled. "I'm not the one who needs to hear that."
Charlie blinked. Tears burned at his eyes, and he turned away quickly, before Amy could see them. Casting through his mind for something to say, he found nothing. His head felt like somebody had stuffed his skull with bags of pink sheep fleece, all sticky and full of fuzz. There were stones in his stomach. Quietly, Charlie retreated back into the bathroom, where he kicked off his boxer shorts, stepped into the shower, and let the hot water sluice over him, washing away the alcoholic stink that clung to his body. He wished he could wash away the guilt as easily.
When Charlie finally felt brave enough to try the living room again, this time wrapped in the safety of his bathrobe, Amy was gone. She'd left a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin on the kitchen table. Was it a peace offering, he wondered, or simple pity? Either way, he felt grateful for it. He looked into the open door of the girls' room to thank her for it, but she wasn't there. The suite was empty.
* * *
Charlie skipped both of his afternoon classes. He'd never missed class before, and the guilt of that added to the guilt of Isabelle, forming a caustic guilt-soup in his stomach. He couldn't relax in the living area of the suite. Every pair of footsteps in the corridor outside made him jump, afraid that one of his suitemates would return. He wondered where Mark, Amy, and John were, if they'd found Isabelle yet. He wondered what she'd told them. The empty pitcher still sat on the kitchen counter, surrounded by liquor bottles, orange rinds and strawberry leaves, sticky drinking glasses, and a crystalline dusting of sugar. Charlie cleaned up slowly, methodically, even venturing into Mark and John's room to retrieve the pile of dirty dishes there. He tried to avoid looking at the couch -- every sight of it reminded him of sitting there with Isabelle.
He tried to call Wonka three times over the course of the afternoon, but the phone rang unanswered, almost as if Wonka knew that Charlie had, drunkenly, kissed Isabelle last night. Frustrated and sick with guilt, Charlie finall opened his WonkaBook and started to compose an e-mail. "Dear Willy," he typed, and hesitated, unsure what to say. A shriek of laughter drew his gaze out the window, where two girls in hats and winter scarves gripped each other's hands and spun madly in the puddles of water collecting on the sidewalk, sending up a fine spray around them. It reminded Charlie of something Wonka would do, and a lump formed in his throat. He chewed his lower lip, and closed the message without saving it. Dropping onto the bed, he pulled the watch Wonka had given him from his pocket, and gripped it until the hinges cut into his hand.
187, the watch said. 187 days until he could go home. Charlie wished that he could fast-forward to 0. At that moment, he hated his mother for sending him away, and (although it made the guilt in his stomach feel even heavier) he hated Wonka for going along with it. Charlie would have given anything to be back home, in the factory, away from the confusion in his suite. For the first time, he thought he understood Wonka's need for seclusion; if Charlie could have locked himself away forever, he would have.
The phone rang just before dinner time. Charlie lunged for it, feeling his heart race. But the caller ID said, "Mum and Dad." He hesitated, not wanting to talk to them. They'd know right away that something was wrong. He let the call go to his voice mail, and sat on his bed to listen to their message.
"Happy birthday, Charlie!" his mother sang. In the background, he heard his father echoing, "Happy birthday!"
"You're probably out with your friends," his mother said. "I'm glad. We hope you're having fun. We miss you, darling, and we hope your present got there on time. Have a wonderful day!"
Charlie hugged himself as the machine clicked off. In his guilt, he'd forgotten that it was his birthday. He lay back on his bed, staring at the ceiling miserably. He thought of going downstairs to check the mail, but hesitated, knowing that anything they sent would only remind him of home, where the Oompa-Loompas sang to him every birthday and nobody was mad at him. Finally, the rumbling in his stomach forced Charlie into the dining hall, where he found a seat by himself near the window. Forking food into his mouth methodically, he stared out at the grey and choppy bay and tried not think about Isabelle or Wonka.
Normally, Charlie hurried through meals when he ate by himself, but today he lingered in the dining hall, reluctant to return to the suite. Mark and Amy must be back from class by now. He wondered if Isabelle had come back. He wondered if she'd ever speak to him again. Finally, the dining hall workers started stacking chairs and wiping off tables, and Charlie sighed, slowly climbing to his feet. He plodded back to the dorm, glaring at the ground until Amy's frantic voice caught his attention.
"Charlie!" she cried. He looked up to see her running towards him, Mark close behind her. She looked scared, and Charlie's heart suddenly hammered in his chest. "What is it?" Charlie asked. "Is Isabelle . . ." he trailed off, afraid to finish his sentence.
"No," Amy said at once. "Well, we haven't seen her yet, but she texted me. She's fine. But --" she paused for breath, and Mark broke in, interrupting her. "There's some guy waiting for you in the lobby. He's been there for hours."
"What?" asked Charlie. "Who?" "He won't tell us his name," Amy said. "He's weird though. Do you want us to come in with you?"
"No," Charlie said, quickening his pace. Nonetheless, they trailed him as he unlocked the door to the building. Charlie kept his mind blank, refusing to wonder who might be waiting for him, or why. His heart beat double-duty in his chest, but he didn't allow it to hope until he emerged into the lobby and saw Willy Wonka standing beside the row of mailboxes. Wonka turned to see him and smiled shyly, clasping his cane in front of him and tilting his head down until his eyes weren't visible.
"Charlie," he whispered. "My dear boy."
Charlie stared for a second more, dumbfounded, and then he was rushing forward and ploughing into Wonka with a desperate embrace. The older man caught him, startled, and then returned the awkward hug, wrapping wiry arms around Charlie and cradling him close. From the corner of his eye, Charlie could see his friends watching with slackjawed amazement, but right now, they were his lowest priority.
"Mr. Wonka," he whispered into the velvet coat. "Willy." Wonka said nothing more, but hugged him closer. He smelled like the factory, peanuts and chocolate, and Charlie breathed in deeply, feeling some of the tension in his stomach ease. Finally, he regained enough control to pull away, holding Wonka at arm's length and blinking at him with slightly watery eyes. "What are you doing here?" he choked.
"Happy birthday, Charlie," Wonka said, smiling shyly.
"I'm so glad to see you," Charlie murmured, loving the way Wonka's eyes glowed at his words. Charlie squeezed him close one more time, and then regretfully released him.
Turning, Charlie smiled at his friends and said, "Mark, Amy . . . this is Willy Wonka."
To be continued . . .
Author's Note: Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome. Thanks for reading!