Disclaimer: I don't own anything of Charlie Bartlett. XP


Flinch

The first time it happens is the third night after his father's release. The Bartlett family settles down for their first meal alone in too many years, and they talk about Charlie's upcoming seventeenth birthday and the wine-tasting tomorrow afternoon and the piano recital Marilyn is performing on Tuesday. It's different, looking across the dinner table and seeing both his parents' smiling faces. It's nice.

Marilyn leaves to practice her concerto. It's Charlie's night to manage the dishes, but his father stays to help.

"I hear there's a new lady in your life."

Charlie grins, but his face still feels too tight for it to be genuine. "Yeah. Susan Gardner."

"She pretty?" his father asks conspiratorially.

Now that he thinks about it, he and his father have never discussed girls before. He left long before Charlie showed any interest. "Yes," Charlie answers simply.

"Can't wait to meet her."

"She's coming over tonight to watch a movie," Charlie says, surprised that his father doesn't remember.

"Oh, that's right."

The exchange is innocent and cordial enough that Charlie would never have expected the blow to his face that came only ten minutes later. It is sort of his fault. He mentions that he's quit soccer and when this surprises his father, Charlie mutters that of course he wouldn't know, he's been in prison all these years. One thing leads to another and Charlie is staring incredulously at his father, his cheek throbbing and his heart hammering, the man's fist still clenched at his side.

"What . . ." Charlie manages, touching his face where the fist connected. He's endured worse, of course, but never from his own father. "What was that?"

To his credit, the man looks adequately ashamed. The fist unclenches. "I'm sorry, Chuck."

Charlie doesn't answer. It's eight-thirty and Susan is supposed to come over in a half hour, but he calls her to cancel.

"Family bonding time?" she says, a laugh in her voice.

Charlie smiles despite himself. "Yeah, something like that."


The next day at school when Susan asks about the bruise framing his eye socket, he lies easily and says he slipped in the shower the night before.

She is too clever for him. "But your hair's wet now."

"So I have a cleanliness fetish."

"Don't they prescribe medication for that sort of behavior?" she asks, a tiny smirk tugging at her lips.

He laughs and when he does he feels suddenly guilty for lying to her about the bruise. She tells him everything—she trusts him, that is, and he trusts her too. But looking into her wide eyes he decides that it's not big enough of a deal for him to worry her over, because it won't happen again.


Except that it does. Only not with Charlie this time—he arrives home late from play rehearsal just in time to hear glass shattering and his mother's yelp from the bedroom. A sick feeling sinking in the pit of his stomach, Charlie bounds up the stairs two at a time and swings the door open to see his father beside a smashed up vase and his mother pinned against the wall, unhurt but terrified.

"What the fuck is this?" Charlie drops his book bag unceremoniously in the open doorframe and stalks toward them.

His father only grunts. "None of your business, kid, and where'd you get that dirty mouth from? Look how he's talking now, bitch," he growls at Marilyn. His fist is about to fly up again but Charlie, impulsive as ever, charges him, knocking them both to the carpet.

"Don't you touch her," Charlie seethes.

"Charlie, Charlie, it's alright, just leave," says his mother. Her voice shakes in trepidation.

He looks up at his mother, incredulous, which is just enough time for his father to shove him to the floor. Distantly he hears Marilyn yell again, but it doesn't matter, it doesn't even hurt, and Charlie's already swinging—

From the floor his father stares at him, outraged. "How dare you?"

For the first time in his life, Charlie has no idea what to say. His chin trembles with the words just begging to spill out, but all of them seem inadequate for the situation.

They're both at their feet now, and his father's face is two inches from his, spitting into it. "I'll teach you to pull that shit with me."

And as he grabs Charlie by his shirt collar and shoves him roughly against the wall, panic swells like a balloon in his chest and the edges of his vision swarm like a dream. He has only felt this sort of crushing fear of death once before in his life, and he suddenly imagines Mr. Gardner drunkenly waving his gun around as if there are no consequences, nothing to live for, and Charlie can't even breathe now because there are hands wrapped around his throat, pushing the life out of him—his mother is screaming, the room is darkening—

He hits the floor with a thud, and by the time he's finished gasping, his father has long since left the room and Marilyn is crouching beside him, sobbing over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Charlie, I'm sorry . . ."


The morning after is Saturday, the day he and Susan always catch a show at the park's drive-in. Sometime last night Mr. Bartlett left with the car, and by the time Charlie is ready to leave he hasn't returned. Unwilling to cancel his plans with Susan a second time, he uses the old van they keep on the premises for transporting heavier things like paintings and furniture and heads to the Gardner's.

In the months following Charlie's initial exposure to the Gardner family, he's grown on them enough that he comes and goes as he pleases, so he never bothers knocking. He steps into the house and hears the music pulsing from Susan's bedroom. Knowing she'll be down within the minute, he shuffles awkwardly in the foyer.

He jumps when the hand clamps on his shoulder.

"Someone's skittish today."

Charlie winces, then turns to look at Mr. Gardner. "Evening, sir," he says.

Mr. Gardner rolls his eyes at the "sir," knowing Charlie only uses it to tweak him. His eyes flicker at the bruise on Charlie's face that hasn't quite faded yet, but he doesn't mention it. "So what's playing tonight?" he asks instead.

"Casablanca, I think."

"Nice threads," Mr. Gardner comments, raising an eyebrow. "New look?"

Charlie looks down as if to regard his black turtleneck. "It's all the rage, don't you know? Girls love it."

"Yeah, Dad," Susan chimes in, although it's clear by her judgmental eyebrow that she's less than thrilled by the ensemble. "Thick lumps of fabric are total turn-ons."

Charlie only grins cheekily at her. She's beautiful, as always. She returns the grin and he feels as if all his worries fell on the doorstep like heavy baggage after a long flight. When she wraps her arms around his shoulders he doesn't even flinch, even though she's squeezing the new bruises and it twinges painfully.

Mr. Gardner clears his throat. "Should I be copying the license number of the nondescript white van you've mysteriously pulled up in?" he asks, peering out the window.

"My—" He's about to say "my dad," but something stops him. "I had to take the other car."

"Ah." Mr. Gardner continues to stare at the van, though, and Charlie almost laughs out loud when he realizes that the man is, in fact, memorizing the tags. "Well, you two kids have . . . fun. But not too much fun. Just—" He raises a hand and awkwardly pats Charlie on the back. "Have her back by midnight, Chuck."

Mr. Gardner doesn't realize that it's the nickname that makes Charlie's fingers twitch. Before the man can think about it, Charlie salutes him in his usual obnoxious manner, chirping, "Yes, sir."


During the movie Susan's hands wander to his neck, fingering the collar of his shirt. Without tearing his eyes away from the screen he gently takes her hands and sets them back down to her lap.

"What?" she whispers. In the faint glow of Humphrey Bogart he sees Susan's wide, dark eyes scrutinizing him in confusion, her hands wringing as if she has done something wrong.

He leans in and kisses her, and as they edge their way to the backseat Charlie figures that it doesn't matter that they're doing this only halfway through the movie, he's seen Casablanca enough times to know how it ends.


Charlie stops sleeping. His room is three doors away from his parents', a substantial distance considering the size of the house, but his ears are still sensitive to the sound of thumps and yells at night. The moment he hears the first blows he tears down the hallway and swings the door open—usually he finds himself the worse for wear when it's all over, but it's better than lying in bed, listening helplessly as he hurts her.

This pattern repeats for a week, until one night the door is locked and he can't fight his way in. He finds out later that it was Marilyn who kept him out; his father didn't mind him barging in, it only meant he had one more person to hurt. Charlie pounds and pounds at the door that night, screaming profanities so vulgar they'd never even crossed his subconscious before, but the wood won't give in to his fist.

Eventually his father opens the door, his frame menacing in the shadowed hall, and when Charlie perceives the glint of something metallic in the darkness his heart catches in his throat.

"You make another peep, Chuck, and I will not hesitate to use this."

"Go ahead," Charlie rasps with a confidence he does not truly possess.

His father holds the knife chest-level and leans close enough that the stench of alcohol is overpowering. "I could kill you."

Charlie takes a ragged breath of fear, his chest rising against his will, exposing itself to the weapon. His mother sobs his name again and he pretends not to hear, standing his ground. "You wouldn't."

With his free hand his father pins his arm to the wall. Charlie is too struck with awe and horror to move as he glides the knife down his upper arm with surprisingly graceful precision. He stares transfixed as the line of cut flesh starts to redden and drip down his arm, and stifling pain sears his skin.

"Maybe not," his father says expressionlessly.

He lets go of Charlie's arm and Charlie stumbles forward, clutching at his sticky blood and dirtying his palm with it.

"Next time you try and raise hell like that, she's the one to get cut, understand?"

Then the door slams in his face.


Charlie stays home from school the next day. It's alright, because by seven o'clock the house is empty, with Marilyn out for a tennis tournament and his father out God-only-knew-where. So nobody even questions him when wakes up, takes a look at the splatter of his blood on the mattress, and decides to shut his eyes and drift back into an uneasy sleep.

Around noon he's startled awake by his cell phone. He grapples for it on the nightstand and presses it against his cheek without even checking the caller ID. "Hello?" he asks blearily, the word like a wad of cotton in his mouth.

"You sick?"

It's Susan. He blinks away the sleep and sits upright on his bed, a wave of nausea hitting him as he sees the stain again.

"I mean, you sound sick. Did I wake you up?"

"No, no, it's fine, I'm fine," Charlie babbles with the grace of a turkey. "Aren't you at school?"

"Lunch," she explains. He can hear the pandemonium of the cafeteria in the background for a moment, then the sound of a door shutting, and then quiet. Susan's voice is low. "Something's up, Charlie. What is it?"

He opens his mouth, reeling for some sort of excuse—usually he lies easily and often. It's in his nature. But Charlie's not so sure of himself anymore.

"What's wrong?" she tries again, sounding genuinely concerned.

His throat thickens. He hates to worry her. "Nothing's up," he says lamely. The worst reply of all, because "nothing" always, always means something.

"Charlie," she says sharply. "I'm not stupid, and I know you well enough to know that something is majorly wrong with you right now. Please, give me a little more credit."

She's right, of course. He shouldn't lie to her, because they both know that they'll love each other no matter what happens and all the sort of fairy tale promises Charlie thought were only real in drive-in movies. But he hates to burden her with his problems, when it's his fault that he gets hurt, because he keeps antagonizing the man when he really ought to know better by now . . .

And a tiny part of him is afraid that even if he and Susan have a fairy tale sort of love, it could dissolve as easily as his parents' did, without any warning at all.

"You trust me." It's a statement, but he hears the doubt behind the words and understands that she expects reassurance.

It almost hurts him more than the throbbing in his arm. "Of course. Always."

She's silent for a while, her unsaid, Then why won't you just tell me? hovering in the space between them.

"Talk to me," she pleads.

It's enough to snap Charlie out of his guilt. "I will. Tonight. I'll come over tonight," he says thoughtlessly.

"You promise?"

She has never asked him for a promise before; she's never needed to. He says it to assure her, but he's afraid that it comes out sounding wrong and stuck to the roof of his mouth. "I promise."

The school bell rings—he can hear it through the phone line.

Susan clears her throat. "I'd better go. See you tonight, then."

He nods and hangs up, forgetting that she can't see him. For a long moment he stares at the phone in his still-bloodied palm. Then he lays back on the mattress, the impact of the night before hitting like a freight train.

How can he possibly tell Susan?

"Fuck," he yells at the ceiling, knowing that nobody will hear.


The fighting starts at dinner. It's just Charlie and his father, and it's tense and uncomfortable, and after that Charlie can't really remember what happened . . . he only remembers regaining consciousness on the hardwood floor, surprised that the windows are dark with night.

His phone's ringing. He realizes that it's what roused him, and answers it, knowing instinctively who it is.

"Where are you?" Susan demands before he even manages to form a coherent word.

"Sorry. Sorry, sorry," he stammers. God, his head smarts something awful.

"What's wrong?"

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Charlie, what's the matter?"

"What time is it?"

"What?" she nearly laughs.

He sees the clock. It's past midnight. Shakily he grabs the wall for support and hoists himself upward. It takes some real effort, but he manages.

"God, I've been calling for hours, do you have any idea how worried I've been? I expected you by at least ten o'clock, I kept thinking you'd gotten into a car accident or some shit like that, I've been out of my freaking mind. Where have you been?"

He holds the phone away from his ear so she can't hear how winded he is.

"Charlie!"

"I—I didn't forget, Susan, I'm heading over right now, I'm sorry. Everything's okay. Don't worry," he says almost too easily, his voice syrupy.

She catches him. "I don't believe you. Get over here."

He rubs at the relentless pounding in his head. "Okay," he complies.

"Charlie?"

"Yeah?"

There's a beat of silence, and she says, "I love you."

Without hesitating, he answers, "I love you, too."


Charlie has made more than a few dumb moves in the past month, but he is smart enough to know that he's in no condition to drive, and calls for a taxi. The balding, middle-aged driver is silent until they're halfway to the Gardners. "Who worked one over on you?" he says, studying his face through the rearview mirror.

"My dad." It's weird that he's admitting this to a taxi driver, especially after all his extensive efforts to hide it from everyone else in his life, but somehow the words escape him and he feels a tiny bit of weight lifted from his shoulders.

"You got someplace you can go, right, kid?"

"Yeah." His voice sounds distant and hollow, even to himself. "Take a left here."

They're silent for the rest of the ride, until Charlie gets out of the car and the man gives him a meaningful look and tells him he's sure everything will turn out okay.

Charlie smiles, hands him the wad of cash, and says thanks, and keep the change.


He sneaks in through her window. Admittedly juvenile and more than a little cliché, but he doesn't want to wake up Mr. Gardner. In his experience situations only worsen tenfold when an adult is involved.

She's sitting by the window with a book in her hands, and when she hears him rustling outside she peers her head out to make sure it's him and backs away from the ledge so he has room to get inside. It's dark in the room when he manages to climb through, but all at once she flicks the light on.

"Shit," Charlie blurts, his eyes temporarily seared by the brightness.

"Oh, God."

Charlie blinks enough times to adjust to the room and then looks up at Susan. He's never seen her in her pajamas, barefoot and hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, and it would be sort of nice if she were not looking at him with such palpable horror. She takes a step forward, her eyes wider than he's ever seen him, and raises her hand to touch his face.

He wills himself not to flinch.

"Charlie."

It's difficult to look at her, because it feels like a confession to meet her eye. He doesn't know what he looks like now, but judging on her reaction it must be bad, and he feels sort of wobbly watching her eyes well up. He averts his gaze to the floor and her hand drops from his cheek.

"Who did this to you?"

Before this it had not occurred to him to cry, but to his horror he feels his chest seizing with emotion against his will. He shakes his head, afraid to speak, afraid that he'll mangle the words with the grief and fear and pain he hasn't let himself feel all this time.

She guides him to the bed and they sit together, and Charlie stares listlessly and tries for the life of him to suppress the thoughts that are building on each other, weighing him down. Every time he gets some semblance of control over himself another wave of disbelief crashes over him, and he thinks he'll have to give into it eventually—it's like swallowing a rock or drowning in a puddle, it's like nothing Charlie's ever felt before, but he can't possibly cry in front of Susan. He can't do that to her, not when she's already worried enough.

"Who did this to you?" she repeats with a different sort of urgency, compelling him to look at her.

He doesn't. He won't.

"Your dad?"

He's shaking. "Yeah." His voice wavers and he hates himself for it.

She grabs at his arm and sees the long, straight line of the cut he haphazardly cleaned this morning. "This?" she asks, and he nods. "And . . . those bruises, all those bruises you've gotten, you've been lying to me about all of them, haven't you?"

A shudder runs through him. "I'm sorry."

"No, don't be sorry—Charlie . . ." She wraps her hand around the back of his head, leaning him into her shoulder, embracing him with her other arm so that it's like she's the only thing still holding him together. He squeezes his eyes shut against the tears, but she already knows and she's murmuring something to him that he's too unfocused to understand.

She runs her fingers through his hair and he tilts toward her. A sob wracks his body, and she presses herself closer to him and this time he hears her saying, "You're going to be fine, you'll stay here for awhile, we can fix this, we can fix this, Charlie."

He wants to believe her, so he lets himself believe, and she lets him cry until they're both exhausted and fall back against the bed, asleep.


When the door opens it slams against Susan's wall, and the pair of them wake up gasping from the shock of it.

"What is this?"

Mr. Gardner rounds on them, his frame overpowering in the doorway. He is absolutely livid.

"Jesus, Dad," Susan gasps, snapping up from the bed like a whip. "Ever heard of knocking?"

"Do not test me right now! Susan Elizabeth Gardner, this is completely unacceptable—there are rules in this house, and I thought it was more than clear that boys are never allowed in here with the door closed, let alone all night—what the hell have you two been doing?"

"Dad!"

"Mr. Gardner—"

"Shut it, Chuck!" he says mercilessly without so much as looking over at Charlie. "Susan, I expected more from you—"

"Would you just listen—you've got it all wrong—" Susan yells over her father's ranting to no avail.

Mr. Gardner won't hear any of it, near shaking with fury. "What were you thinking?" he demands, and Susan flinches, opening her mouth to retort.

Charlie beats her to it. "I'm sorry, Mr. Gardner, it was my fault—"

"Damn right it's your fault." He shifts to Charlie, who clambers to his feet. His dark eyes regard Charlie in disgust. "I trusted you, Chuck."

"You're being ridiculous, Charlie had nothing to do with it, I asked him over here because—"

"I trusted you with my daughter after all the shit you pulled last year and you do this to repay me?"

Charlie doesn't even react, stricken under Mr. Gardner's blazing glare. He can't look away. "I'm sorry," he mumbles, but Mr. Gardner doesn't even hear it, and Susan is yelling and grabbing at her father's arm, but he's much stronger than she is and his hands seize Charlie's shoulders roughly and shake him.

It stings and Charlie can't help the sharp intake of breath that escapes him.

"As if you haven't fucked things up enough, Chuck—you don't even care what this could do to her, her whole future, can you even imagine? God, I thought you knew better, I thought I could trust you with her—"

Susan's shrieking finally overpowers them both. "You're hurting him!"

The words rip through the air and Mr. Gardner releases him at once, as if the fabric of Charlie's shirt has burned him. Charlie stumbles back, his knees nearly buckling against the mattress. The cut on his arm is open again, staining his sleeve, and Mr. Gardner stares at the red blotch, transfixed.

Charlie feels the shame rising into his cheeks and bolts for the door before Mr. Gardner sees.

"He needs help, Dad," Susan says, her voice cracking from overuse.

His hand is on the knob and he turns it desperately, fear catching in his throat when the door doesn't immediately open.

"That's why he's here, you got it all wrong—"

"Chuck!"

But Charlie is already running the length of the hall, down the stairs, through the front door—he hears it slam behind him and doesn't even look back, not even when he hears Mr. Gardner call his name a second time and a third. He keeps sprinting like a man possessed, the air tearing at his lungs, his feet pounding against the pavement, away from Mr. Gardner and away from last night when he confessed and made the nightmare real.


He's not stupid enough to go home. For a while he wanders around a wooded area in the park, trying to ignore the persistent ringing of his cell phone in his pocket. It's Susan, he knows without looking. The fifth time she calls he picks up, feeling guilty and rash for running out on her.

"Susan—"

"Where are you?"

He almost tells her, but thinks better of it. "I'm okay. I'm safe, alright? I'll see you tomorrow," he says instead, keeping his voice as calm and reassuring as he can. It almost helps, trying to take control of the situation. If he twists it the right way in his mind he can imagine that it's Susan who needs help and not him.

"Charlie!"

He severs the connection with a world-weary sigh.


At first he considers taking refuge at Kip's or Murphy's, but Kip is already fragile enough as it is and he would only make Murphy feel awkward showing up at his place. So he wastes most of the afternoon away sitting in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station, on a road nobody bothers driving up anymore. When it gets warmer he finds a shady tree and unintentionally nods off—by the time he wakes up again it's nearly seven o'clock at night, and there are two new voicemails on his phone.

Without listening to them he stands up groggily, stretching out the knots in his limbs and dusting the dirt off his pants.


The walk to his house only takes about fifteen minutes. He opens the door and his phone rings again, blaring through the empty hall.

"Chuck?"

The door is still open. He knows he can just creep out of it again as if he were never here, but in the moment he hesitates the foyer light flicks on, exposing him.

His eyes close in exasperation.

"Where've you been?"

"Out," says Charlie tersely, heading for the stairs.

His father jerks the collar of his shirt back before he reaches them. His muddy sneakers skid backward but he doesn't topple, his fall halted when he thuds against the man's chest.

"Out? Out where?"

The phone stops ringing.

When Charlie turns around and sees his father leering at him, he thinks about the look in Mr. Gardner's eyes this morning—you're hurting him!—and knows he'll receive no such mercy here. It's hopeless. Nothing he does now will make it any better.

"None of your business." Charlie's voice is even and smooth like the railing of the banister he's clutching.

In an instant he's sprawling on the floor and bright patches are skittering in front of his eyes. His head feels like it's been split in two—he's taken too many blows in the past few days to shake this one off, and he stares dumbfounded up at the high-arched ceiling before his father's red, drunken face swims in his vision.

"Try using that big mouth of yours again, Chuck."

"Fuck you," Charlie says thickly, and even though his temples sting with effort it satisfies him enough that a goofy, mindless grin stretches across his face.

With a resounding smack! his father whales him again. "Ungrateful son of a bitch," he spits, punctuating the last word with a kick to Charlie's stomach. "I give you everything you ever need—this house you live in, the clothes you're wearing, those therapists you whine your whole fucking life away to—"

Charlie curls himself against the blows, clutching his abdomen.

"—and you talk that sort of shit to me after all I've done for you?"

"Bull," Charlie splutters, and blood dribbles out of his mouth. "You've done nothing, you were never there . . ."

His father drags him roughly to his feet so that they're eye-to-eye. "I did what I had to do for this family. Don't you understand? It was me or the bitch and I took the blame—"

"You don't call her that!" Charlie screams.

"I'm the one who held your precious little life together so you could get kicked out of every damn school in the state." He drops Charlie again and his body knocks unceremoniously against the hardwood floor. "And you, you didn't even visit me, you didn't even give a fuck about what happened to me—"

"No." Charlie's ears are ringing over the sound of his father's yells. The front door—God, it's only a few feet away, but he doesn't think he can get up. The helplessness is more degrading than the pain. He's better than this, he's wormed his way out of situations much more complicated, and this is so simple, so easy, he can't fathom why he didn't think of it before.

He finds his phone and makes a show of hitting three buttons, and his father freezes, transfixed.

"I'll call the police," Charlie rasps.

Panic flickers in the man's eyes. Charlie recognizes it because he's seen it before, in all sorts of faces, in hallways, in church, at the grocery store . . . Charlie knows.

In actuality the three numbers he's dialed are nowhere near 911, but he presses his shaking finger against the "call" button anyway, just daring his father to make another move. "I'll do it," he says for emphasis, propping himself up on his elbows.

His father turns his back on him. "Get the fuck out."

Charlie is more than happy to oblige.


He sits slumped on a swing in the abandoned park, his head leaning against the cold metal chain. It's pitch dark outside and he hasn't seen a soul for hours. He's not entirely sure how he got here or if he's even awake—the edges of his vision are cloudy and he sees everything through a thin film, and it reminds him of opening his eyes under water until they're raw and red and impaired.

"It's me." His mother's voice is so familiar that it's all the introduction she needs to offer. "Listen, Charlie, I need you to leave the house. The police are coming to arrest your father; I made the call a couple of minutes ago, and . . . it would be best if you weren't there. Maybe if you stayed with Susan . . ." She sighs, her tears audible miles away. "I don't want you to worry, honey. Just stay safe."

When Charlie finishes listening to the voicemail, left just before he walked into the house, he pulls the phone away from his ear. It's sticky with his blood and the text on the screen reads "2 New Voicemails."

"Damn it, I've been calling all day—where have you been? I checked the school, the park, I even went to Murphy's—God, please tell me you didn't go home. Call me back, Charlie." Susan pauses and Charlie hears someone murmuring in the background. Mr. Gardner, he realizes. Then Susan repeats, "Call me back as soon as you get this."

His thoughts are so distant that he can't even remember which speed dial is Susan's number. He closes his eyes and holds a hand to his head as if he can contain it and somehow regain his lost composure, but it's gone, and he lolls mindlessly against the chains of the swing and lets the wind nudge him forward.

The next voicemail plays automatically. "Chuck . . . come on back. I'm sorry about this morning. I didn't know." Charlie's so surprised to hear Mr. Gardner's voice projecting from his phone that his eyes widen comically. "Susan's worried," he says gruffly, and that's the end of the message.

The phone slips out of Charlie's grasp and hits the gravel with a clink. He ignores it, burying his head in his knees, trying uselessly to quell the persistent throbbing. Time passes in chopped intervals, and it may have been hours and it may have been minutes that he sits there alone before a hand gently touches his shoulder and nudged him.

He doesn't move. It doesn't even occur to him.

"Chuck?"

It's Mr. Gardner, and he sounds concerned.

"Stop calling me that," Charlie mumbles, his tongue too spongy for coherency.

Mr. Gardner doesn't reply and Charlie can only assume it's because he didn't understand the garble. Charlie barely raises his eyes to look at the man. He's crouching in front of the swing, his dark eyes searching Charlie apprehensively in the dark.

"Are you alright?" he asks softly, as if Charlie's some sort of wounded animal and not a teenage boy.

The answer is obvious. No, he's not alright. How can he by any means be 'alright' when every part of him aches and stings and he's not even sure whether or not this is an elaborate hallucination?

Mr. Gardner retrieves the phone from the gravel. "This yours?"

Charlie nods and the pain in his head jolts unpleasantly.

"You haven't been answering any of our calls." He's only slightly accusatory, but gentle about it. Charlie wants to tell him that he doesn't deserve his sympathy, that he should just leave him alone and stop trying to poke around in his business, but Charlie can't help but feel relieved that Mr. Gardner is here because at least that means someone can tell him what to do.

"Where've you been all day?"

"I'm sorry," says Charlie. It seems like that's all he ever hears and says these days.

Mr. Gardner shifts uncomfortably. "No, I'm sorry." He clears his throat. "I was out of line this morning. I should have realized that you wouldn't . . ." After a moment of indecision, he says, "I should have known you knew better than that, both of you. I should have realized something was wrong."

"Not your fault," Charlie mumbles.

"Susan says your dad's been hurting you."

Leave it to Mr. Gardner to be as blunt as possible. Charlie would laugh but he can't muster the strength just now.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

For reasons he cannot fathom, Charlie actually feels sort of bad for keeping this from Mr. Gardner. In retrospect it seems stupid of him not to go to the man in the first place.

"I couldn't."

"You should have." He reaches out to touch Charlie's hand and Charlie jerks back, but not before Mr. Gardner has felt the stickiness of it. The older man inhales sharply and Charlie wishes he could melt into the swing set.

Even though it's too dark to see him clearly Charlie can almost imagine the incredulity in Mr. Gardner's expression. "Are you bleeding?"

Charlie bites his lip, his cheeks flooding with embarrassment.

When he feels Mr. Gardner's hand probing his forehead he flinches again and can't help but gasp, nearly knocking himself off the swing in the process. "Don't," says Charlie.

"Jesus, kid, what happened?"

"It was my fault." Charlie's voice breaks. "I shouldn't have . . ."

Mr. Gardner lets loose a few choice words that would make Susan blush. "Where's that blood coming from?" he demands.

"Various places," Charlie answers, mostly to be a smartass. He even manages a small smirk, but then Mr. Gardner's firm hands are under his arms and propping him up from the swing. "What—" he splutters.

"I'm driving you to the hospital."

"You can't do that," says Charlie automatically.

"Hell if I can."

"No, really—" Charlie tries to struggle but his limbs aren't quite agreeing with him and he pitches forward, his knees buckling. Mr. Gardner catches him and they're close enough that Charlie can see the alarm in his face.

"Can you walk?"

"Yeah, just . . . hold on, I got it."

But he doesn't. The instant Mr. Gardner lets him go he stands in place for a moment, and then everything around him is swirling and pitch-dark at the edges and he feels himself fall. "Charlie," Mr. Gardner exclaims, and that's the last thing he hears for a long time.


It's not entirely a surprise when he wakes up in the hospital. The room is empty but he sees his mother's purse and Susan's backpack hung up on chairs. He's sort of relieved that he wakes up alone, though, because it takes a while for him to absorb everything—the bandages on his head and his chest, the sling around his arm, Susan's cell phone next to his bed that reads 5:11pm.

As he's trying to work out how long he's been out for he sees Mr. Gardner stop in his tracks in the outside hallway. He walks in with a cup of coffee and sits down, considering Charlie.

"Should I get Marilyn?"

Charlie swallows. "No, not yet."

"You feeling "Dandy," Charlie answers with a wry smile. He sobers and says, "Hey, thanks, for, uh . . ."

Mr. Gardner nods, and that's that.

"So what happened?" Charlie asks apprehensively.

The man raises his eyebrows in question, then understands. "Your father was arrested last night. An hour or so before I found you."

Charlie digests this for a moment, staring absently at the white sheets. Then he looks back up at Mr. Gardner. "How'd you know where I was?"

"No clue. I wouldn't let Susan leave the house and she was so worried that I just went and looked for you myself. That's the park you two see those movies in, right?"

"Yeah."

"Thought I'd check. Good thing I did."

Charlie takes a deep breath. "So what now," he says, more to himself than to Mr. Gardner.

"I talked with your mother." Mr. Gardner says this carefully, checking Charlie's reaction, but Charlie just stares back. "She thinks it would be best if you stayed with us for awhile. Just so she can take care of everything."

"You don't mind?" Charlie doesn't mean to sound as pathetic as he does, but once the words are in the air he can't take them back.

Mr. Gardner seems surprised. "No, I don't mind." Then he raises his eyebrows. "But you're staying in the guestroom, and that's where I expect to find you every morning. Alone."

Charlie smirks. "Yes, sir."

This time when Mr. Gardner touches his hand he doesn't flinch away.


Aaaaaand that's all, folks. :D