Since I'm a pervert, this is the gutter my mind was in when Charlie said that no one knew what really happened on Don's thirteenth birthday camping trip.
"I wasn't lost," Charlie said before Don could build up too much momentum. "It wasn't your fault."
"What, you saying you just walked home? All of eight years old and you decided to walk back to Pasadena?"
Charlie nodded. "At first, yeah. You obviously didn't want me there. Far be it from me to intrude where I was clearly not desired. I wasn't trying to get you in trouble. I just figured your party would be better if I wasn't there."
"So you were gonna walk home? Find your way outta the woods, mosey on down a highway?" Don exclaimed.
"That's not what Charlie said," Dr. Bradford interjected. "He said 'At first.' What happened?"
"I found my way out of the woods easily enough. There was a man at the entrance. He asked me what my name was and said my parents were looking for me. He said his name was Roger. He told me to follow him to his van and he'd take me to my parents."
Don was as white as a sheet. The therapist was shocked still.
"You always told me I was an idiot genius," Charlie smiled half-heartedly at Don. "I followed him. He gave me something to eat – it made me tired. I don't remember much of the rest, but when I woke up, there was a search party coming through the woods." He shrugged, as though the action could rid him of the memory. "It took me over twenty years to tell that story," he murmured.
"When Dad hugged you, you flinched, but you hung on to Mom like she was gonna disappear," Don remembered. "You stayed in your room for days. You would barely even look at me, or Dad. I thought you were pissed."
"I never blamed you for that, so don't you dare blame yourself," Charlie told him pointedly. "When I pieced together what I knew happened and what I guess happened, I was old enough to realize we both said and did a lot of stupid things that day, but…Roger, whoever he was…was neither of our faults. No one's fault but his own."
"I…buddy…" Don looked lost.
Charlie sighed. "It was twenty years ago, Don. I'm…not over it, exactly, but I'm not going to fall apart. I just…you deserve to know that I never left to spite you or make you look stupid. I never wanted to hurt you, not when you were thirteen and not when you were thirty. I didn't get much say in my life until I graduate Princeton, whatever you might think. I got all the right tutors and took all the right classes, but no one ever really sat down with me and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. Not even Mom. She understood my thought process, and most of the time she could tell how I felt. But she always felt that my education was more important that how I felt about it. If someone had just asked…"
"What would you have done differently, buddy?" Don asked now, instead.
Charlie gave him a weak smile. "I would have moved up maybe two grades. I would have tested out of the math classes and taken advanced ones at some college, but I wouldn't have gone to classes with kids five years older than me. Not just because they either thought I was cuddly or worthy of bullying, but because when you have two kids, you just shouldn't let the younger one take the same or more advanced classes than the older one, because it creates bad feeling. I've seen it in some of my students, and I'm surprised our parents didn't figure that one out faster."
"I would never have gone to Princeton. I love teaching at CalSci, but I wouldn't have attended here either, because teaching at your alma mater is uncomfortable. I would have gone to a small, private school like Rose-Hulman and studied math or engineering, gotten my PhD somewhere else, and come back to teach near Mom and Dad. I would not have let Mom come with me. That created far more problems than it solved. And when I was a kid, I would have done more sports and less school. Community or synagogue league sports, though, because goodness knows I would've been too small for school sports.
"Of course, I say these things as an adult. As a kid, I knew I was unhappy a lot, but I focused on math and, though it didn't make things better, it made it easier to ignore bullies and – and you," he told Don quietly. "If I ever have children who are like we were – one a bright kid who does well at everything, and one a so-called genius who excels in one thing and can't spell worth a damn, - I'd forget the bullshit about private tutors and delicate geniuses and let the kid live a little. And I'd never let my not-genius forget that he was loved and special, too, and just as much as his brother. Because no matter how much I wish I could blame you for treating me like shit for years, I realize that a lot of it was our parents' fault for not instinctively knowing how to raise a genius and his normal big brother. But how would they have known? So I can't blame anyone. I can only remember the look on your face, all the times you told me to go away, leave you alone, quit hanging around."
Charlie shrugged. "I don't know if my way would be better. But it would be different."