Her name is Charline. Like Charlie, but because it rhymes with Marlene, it’s a girl name. She thinks she might have heard about a girl named Charlie once upon a time, though. Probably in a book she read. She’s a slow reader, but writing is important to her. She forgets things quickly. That’s why when she gets her first debit card— when she’s eighteen years old— she brings a notebook to the bank to write down everything they tell her. Her notes are sloppy and written in pen, riddled with spelling errors, but she can go back and look over her notes and know what she’s got, so that’s something.
Charline isn’t eighteen yet, though. She’s only eight, and Danny is a stupid, stupid boy who lives down the road and plays video games better than anyone else in the countryside. The hill Danny lives on is barren. There’s a few sprouts here and there, but mostly it’s all cracked earth, tires and trucks. Danny’s father is a mechanically minded guy, and a mechanic to boot. Everyone Charline knows is a mechanically minded guy, honestly. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. She goes to school in a city an hour away, and sometimes she pauses and wonders why no one at school gets how an engine works, why a pot of water has to go on the woodstove, or the reason the wind blows. Charline likes the wind and the sun. She likes them in tandem: when the sun is blazing overhead in the middle of August and the grass is starting to turn browner than green, the wind is a wonderful creature, until windburn happens at least. Charline thinks she and her mother might be the only ones who know about windburn. No one else seems to go outside often enough to get it.
On days when it’s partly cloudy (cloudless days are boring) and the sun is high, she likes to go out into the field and play on the mound above the storm cellar. There’s a rain gauge on top of it. The very top line has the name “Charlie,” sharpied in, because that’s the number of inches Hurricane Charlie rained down way back in—was it 1992? Who knows. It’s just cool that her name is almost the same as the name that flooded the basement and washed a pickup down the river.
She tries to not tip the rain gauge over when she plays. Usually she succeeds. Danny never tries to avoid it, though. He intentionally knocked it over once. The only time Danny’s outside is when he’s playing in the stacks of tires behind his house or if he’s riding in his father’s four-wheeler. Even though he’s only two years older than Charline, he drives the four-wheeler all up and down the hills, into the paths in the woods and onto plains that Charline thinks she vaguely knows but doesn’t recognize from this angle.
Once he drove her out into the woods where there was a big orange rope and a WARNING! sign. He said “Dad went inere and he hasn’t come back since. It’s been three whole days. We think there’s trolls innere. They sleep with one eye open and one ear listenin’.”
Then Danny screamed an ear-splitting scream and raced back to the four wheeler. Charline scrambled to follow him, thinking he had seen something. She started crying midway through the ride out of the woods when Danny began to laugh.
Most of the time with Danny, it’s better to just stay inside.
Right now though, he’s sitting in the armchair yelling at her for making the mewtwo he traded her months ago have ‘rock smash’ where ‘psychic’ used to be. He has a new puppy, courtesy of his birthday. The puppy is on the floor chewing on a plastic bottle that Charline doesn’t think puppies should have, but Danny doesn’t care about giving plastic to animals because the crinkling makes a lot of noise and drives his willful stay-at-home mother up the wall. Sort of like Danny himself, in a way.
“I had to work so hard in yellow to get that TM!” he says, waving her gameboy around above his head. “I’m gonna have to start it all over again now ‘cause you’re too stupid to keep it!”
It’s really hard to say, ‘sorry, that move always missed and I needed someone who wouldn’t be bogged down because of rock smash,’ or, ‘sorry, I thought you make a clone of it before you traded it to me,’ or, ‘sorry, how was I supposed to know it was the only mewtwo you had with psychic?’
So she just lowers her head and suggests they go play in the tire pile instead. Even outside with Danny is better than this. Even Danny playing mean pranks in the woods is better than this. When Danny refuses to leave, she starts talking about playstation games instead, and Danny offers to show her the very dull special attack sequences in his exclusively hacked Shaman King game. She’s never heard of Shaman King, but when she reads the novels later she realize how many spoilers Danny gave her, and she sort of hates him for it. Still, she sits and politely bares it while Danny shows off swirling light attacks over and over. The minute he mentions a game she’s actually interested in, she latches onto it and chastises him thoroughly for playing them out of order.
Eventually, Danny’s mother comes in and offers to drive Charline home. She’s grateful. She doesn’t see Danny until church on Sunday when she sits beside him, because there aren’t many other kids she knows at this church. She does her best to ignore it when he makes faces all throughout the sermon, even though she knows her own father would have spanked or threatened her for doing the same. Danny’s father isn’t there, though. Danny’s father is always working. Charline’s father at least comes to church.
She doesn’t touch her pokemon game for a while after that. When she finally picks it up again, over a year later, all her data is deleted. Her typhosion, Ty, who had lost a million battles back when he was a simple cyndaquil. Her ampharos who she had very cleverly nicknamed ‘baaaaaaaaaaaa.’ Her lapras who had the key to defeating the Elite Four though she hadn’t realized that at the time, and so it had taken her months to power through with typhlosion instead. They’re all gone.
Maybe they left the game to go searching for her, because she had left them for so long. She knows that isn’t the case.
They were all gone.
When she plays with Andrew and Kenneth, the Bowman twins from down the road, she plays the damsel in distress. She’s okay with this, because when she’s not the damsel in distress, she’s the super-secret spy, Thunder Bird, who’s super strong, knows sixteen different forms of kung-fu and has a magical birthmark which grants her the ability to do something-or-other. Nothing like clairvoyance or telepathy, because it would be hard to get the boys to go along with her ideas if she even tried to put them forth. Since it’s a lost battle before it’s even begun, she just doesn’t give them any of her ideas or plans or plots. Instead, sometimes she just makes up powers on her own and says, “no you didn’t, I used my magic! Ha!” and then they wrestle.
She’s okay with the damsel thing, really, even if she is usually a super-secret spy who can only be caught through trickery. Her favorite Disney princess, Meg, was a damsel in distress. She’s not entirely sure what a damsel in distress is, but she doesn’t ask out loud because once she said the words at school and another girl gasped and pointed, saying, “TEACHER! Charline said a bad word! She said D-A-M-N!” Charline’s mouth was washed out with soap, and she never said ‘damsel in distress’ aloud again.
Even though she’s not entirely sure exactly what a damsel in distress is, she has a vague idea. Besides, she knows she likes the ides of ropes and dungeons. She doesn’t mention it to anyone, but sometimes when she’s playing with her friends they bring out a pair of fake handcuffs and she pretends they’re hard to get out of so she can wear them a little more, even if people make fun of her for still not knowing how to hit the secret switch on the inside. Sometimes she’d flip to the back of the TinTin book and look at the advertisement for the book about TinTin going to the pyramids and all the characters bound up like mummies.
She just likes looking at it. Sometimes she things she wants to be a mummy for Halloween. Then, she thinks that the toilet paper would rip way too easily. She would rip everything apart without even trying, and she dismisses the idea.
While she’s playing damsel in distress that day, she’s hiding under a rotting picnic table in the yard and pretending she can’t just crawl out, and she has to call for the boys to come get her. So she does. She calls out their fake super secret spy names, “Black Panther! Lightning Bolt!” and when she can’t remember their last code name, “Uh… Andy!”
She waits for a little while, then calls again, “Help me! Pantha! Lightning Bolt! Andy’s Codename!”
No one comes, so she tries once more. “Danny, hurry up! Ken!”
She scowls and pretends to bust out of the picnic table (in reality, she hits her head on one of the beams and her hair is snagged by a protruding nail, but she still escapes so it counts anyway) “I’m free, guys! Where are you?”
Eventually, she wanders into the house again, and finds them sitting around eating PB&Js.
“We got hungry,” Andy explains, shrugging apologetically.
“Oh,” Charline says. “Okay. You could’ve told me.” She sits and pulls the peanut butter and the jam jar and the bread towards herself and begins making a sandwhich as well. “So what’re we doing next?”
“Me ‘n Andy haveta go home soon,” Ken says.
“Oh,” says Charline. “Okay.”
“Wanna have a sleepover sometime soon?”
They have the sleepover in Ken and Andy’s front yard, on the near-to-the-house side of the ditch with the stream in the bottom. Their house is a log cabin, and sleeping in it would probably feel like camping if it weren’t so secure and homey. There’s furs on the walls and beads and horns, because Ken and Andy’s mother works translating local Native American languages for preservation. The house feels like a movie set more than a house.
In the tent, they have a pillow fight. Someone must’ve put a book in their pillow case because Charline jumps head-on into the fray and loses two of her baby teeth in the grass, and a third tooth is knocked loose. Andy and Ken’s mother cares for her in the house’s tiny kitchen, and around the middle of the night everyone moves inside because the outdoors are too scary even for Danny. They all eat icecream and play legos, which the boys hog, because they’re their legos. Charline still manages to build a shoddy airplane with the few scraps of legos she can get away. It doesn’t fly and all the bricks are mismatched, but it’s her own and when it’s time to put everything away, she places back into the box without crumpling or dismantling it, so maybe she can come back later for it instead of saying goodbye.
It’s funny, because when she’s thirteen she goes to a summer course in lego robotics. She’s the only girl in the entire class, which is something she’d never experienced before. Her partner had a name which she never remembered, but they were partnered together all week. On the final day— tournament day— she admits to the teacher that her partner had been making all of the robots and not letting her help at all, and that honestly she was glad the course was ending because she was tired of just watching other people have fun.
The teacher orders her partner to not touch the legos at all that day and allows Charline to build a robot car entirely on her own. It’s very small and very slow moving, with all the legos going into creating a protective armor and two rows of tires, which made it very heavy and slow moving. Her partner tries to give her advice, but she ignores him and wins an underdog-type second place in the tournament—when her mother comes to pick up, Charline squeals loudly and brags more than she remembers doing in a long time.
It’s the saddest thing she’s done in a long time when she has to crumple up the slow-moving tank of hers and put the pieces back in the box, but she does it, and she says goodbye.
Charline sees Danny for the first time in years in the back of church. It’s the first time in years she’s been in church, since their father is the one who always goes to church and her father doesn’t live with her anymore. She and Danny never really formally broke off their friendship, so she sits in the back beside him like she used to, even though it seems like there’s many more kids around her age now.
Danny hasn’t matured a bit. Charline isn’t sure what she was expecting, but even though she feels like she is the mature one now, she gets so angry at him for not shutting up and for being so mean to his mom that nothing but childish gibberish and sticking out her tongue come to mind as retaliation. As they part ways, he says she hasn’t matured a bit.
She wants to bite.
It isn’t the last time she feels such anger.
When she’s in her freshman year of high school—middle school is one large blurry memory of misery and sadness. That’s all. A friend spotting up here and there, but nothing that seems permanent. Nothing stable. Nothing close. Maybe one girl who sat in front of her during the most miserable math class of her life, but— freshman year is when Charline wants to kill a boy.
His name is Patty.
Pat is blond, his hair is close-cropped to his skull and he wears a Hollister t-shirt and yellow flip flops to school every day. He doesn’t know how an engine works or what makes the wind blow, and he probably doesn’t know about wind burn either. What he does know is tequila and how to use photobooth on the school’s single Mac computer, located in the art room. He also knows that the first year of art is a bogus year, and so when he’s partnered with Charline on a project, he slacks off and plays with photobooth all class even though the poor teacher (who is a middle aged, pity-invoking, depressed woman working even when clearly suffering from some kind of nasty cold) trusted them to work.
There’s an anger that burns very close under her skin. It’s barely below the epidermis. It’s barely contained within her. It spews out of her eyes, between her fingernails and the cracks of her teeth. It’s like a bad movie effect. All the hair follicles in her head seem to be alight. Her lungs expand, trying to hold in the scream of rage and frustration and—to her own horror, as she watches, unable to control herself—her hands are reaching out involuntarily to the back of Pat’s neck. Her fingers twitch eagerly. She knows if she touches him it will draw attention. She knows if she touches him, she will try to strangle him.
She will succeed. She has never hated anyone so much in all of her life.
Not the boy in Biology who bragged about setting a live duck on fire.
Not the poachers who hunt their woods during the off-season, who shoot the cows or other humans by accident.
Not her father, who made her mother go on prozac or the boy in the lego-robotics class who forbid her from participating.
Not Danny, who harasses his mother by giving his dog plastic bottles and who lures people into the woods only to frighten them out of their mind; not Danny, who yells at people for changing their own pokemon’s move sets.
Not Andrew and Kenneth, who knocked out three of her teeth and abandoned her beneath the picnic table.
She doesn’t strangle him.
She goes into the bathroom and sobs. She doesn’t do it because she’s hurt or upset. She sobs because she’s so, so horribly angry that either she will sob or she will murder a man.
It happens again three years later, when she is a senior in high school on an overnight field trip. There’s a boy hogging the ping-pong table and being entirely unfair when people finally convince him to let others have turns. When he throws a tantrum about how mean they are all being, Charline remembers that same boy bragging about his arcade machine collection and how even if he does become a failure of a professional actor, he will have money because of his family. She remembers how that boy laughed and cracked jokes at Suman’s wake while Suman’s mother was on her knees, face buried in shroud, crying, “O my little boy! O my little Suman!”
Charline goes into the bathroom and sobs until another girl hears her and comes to her aid.
It hasn’t happened again since, though Charline is sure it will again, one day.
In the meantime, she makes cheap jewelry for pocket change, she learns how to make fried rice and ramen noodles, she prepares for college and thinks about how strange it is how the wind works. How she hasn’t been windburnt in years. She has come to despise being a damsel in distress, now that she knows what it means and why it’s wrong that it’s something prevalent enough to warrant a phrase of its own, though she still sort of likes handcuffs and ropes.
Mostly though, she is still angry. She is eighteen and angry that she forgets things easily, so when she goes to get her first debit card she brings a notebook to write down important information. She signs her name S. Charline on receipts now, and still doesn’t feel like she’s an adult. She feels more like an overgrown kid who people have placed too much faith into. She’s allowed to drive a car and buy porn and go to concerts and movies without adult supervision, but she doesn’t feel this young-adult invincibility that people keep telling her to be wary of.
She still misses her typhlosion. She wonders sometimes if her pokemon really are looking for her, their trainer. Sometimes it worries her that she spends so much time thinking about things in the distant past like that, but every day they come back to her little by little, despite her easy-come-easy-go memory.
She forgets, though she doesn’t want to. She knows there are things she needs to remember: the fear of trolls chasing her through a forest. What it felt like to want to murder a man. What it was to be contented.
She forgets things easily, but she still remembers the basics. She remembers windburn. She remembers being snubbed and knowing she was in the right. She remembers the feeling of the sun.
Maybe that’s the most important thing, that she does remember the basics. Maybe it’s best that she understands the rest is ephemeral, and so she has to write it down.
Still, there are days when all Charline wants is something more than words scratched on cheap notebook paper with doodles in the margins, retelling her life story over and over again.
Only the details change.