The next day found Charlie sitting by herself at the desk in the shed with a book of animal anatomy that she was supposed to be reviewing in line with Doc's medical notes. But, like most things that sat at that desk, they went unnoticed as her head invariably found itself on her hands, eyes staring unfocused through the window.
Without meaning to, her mind drifted over Burbank, and the two bedroom ranch house, and the little room in the attic.
If nothing else, that was the one thing she truly regretted leaving- the one thing she couldn't take with her. She loved that room, and the closeness of it, and the way the wind rattled in the rafters during storms. At one point, she wanted to move her bed in there to make that her official bedroom, but there was no way she could maneuver a mattress, let alone any other sort of furniture, up the pull-down stairs and through the small space reserved for people and rats. But she still spent most of her time up there, reading and thinking and dreaming. Dreaming of what living a different life would be like.
Well, her life in New Hope was certainly different. Her apartment in Forest Creek had nothing on the house in Burbank, let alone her mother's penthouse in LA. Charlie loved her job, but it felt a little unusual to be in the middle of November and not studying for a midterm. Of course she had gotten her GED before she left, but breaking a habit after 10 years of practice was still a little new. No more family to live with, no more father to take care of. Yes, it was different.
But, at the same time, this was the first time she had only herself to worry about- no one else. The freedom of this was too new to become normal just yet, so she still reveled in it. And the half-dozen or so of cats that roomed with her weren't family, but as far as she was concerned, that was a good thing. Family, to her, meant people demanding all of her attention and energy and concern, and giving very very little in return. Not that the cats really gave much of any of these things back, but at least they left her treats of dead mice and birds. In their own way, they were showing their appreciation.
Charlie heard a crash and a muffled curse from across the parking lot. Doc's office was always a mess- it was probably another stack of papers and books that fell to the floor. Again, she figured, smiling to herself.
And, probably the most important difference between her three lives...
Her life now didn't feel empty.
There were people in it. People that didn't demand so much of herself that there was hardly anything left. People that gave generously of themselves. So much so that rather than feeling empty, she felt full and happy.
Like Doc. He was grumpy, grouchy and stubborn, but she had seen harsh and uncaring enough to know that he was actually very gentle and thoughtful, wearing his grumpiness like armor to keep people from seeing the softness underneath. He worried about her, probably more than any employer rightfully should over any employee, but it felt nice, and she only gave token complaints. He also understood her fascination about his work, and after putting up a front of irritation, was happy to show her and teach her what he knew.
Speaking of teaching... Charlie looked down at the discarded book in front of her. Its pages looked back, disapproving of her lack of dedication to its words. In a minute. I'm on a roll now.
Let's see, who else was there? There was Dayle and Tanya, of course, charming people that she liked to spend time with occasionally. People that made her feel like a 17-year-old girl for once, and take enjoyment from things like going to the mall, eating junk food, and scoping out boys. Not that she ever payed much attention to the latter activity, of course. Not when there was her attractive and friendly co-worker to think about.
Royce. She remembered yesterday, suddenly crystal clear. She told him that she liked him. He didn't run and he didn't laugh. He kissed her. He liked her. The possibilities to come from this simple truth made her head spin in wonderfully dizzying ways. Royce made her feel happy in a way she hadn't expected, let alone imagined. He was a little quiet and a little shy, but opened up to become warm and radiant with just a small smile. Friendly, protective and caring, he had unwittingly become her knight, embodying everything she had left California to find. Simple happiness, satisfaction, and a feeling of being cared for.
He doesn't know it, but... I owe him a lot, she realized. Just for... for being there.
And, of course, the only way she knew to accomplish this was to cook. Besides drawing, there wasn't much else she could do. And with a comfortable amount of money in her savings, she figured she could splurge for the occasion. Pork? Pork chops? No, Royce will eat a lot more than I can afford, so it has to be something filling. Potatoes. Those are filling. A stew? A stew with pork. Or lamb, if I can find it on sale. Stew doesn't need a whole lot of meat. And I can make something for dessert, too. Cupcakes? Brownies? No, those are too ordinary. What else can I make? Cakes, pies, donuts, tarts. What about donuts? Little ones, filled with jam or cream or something. Topped in chocolate? I can do that. They don't take a lot of stuff to make, and if I make tons, he and Rosemary can take some home and I'll actually have a few for myself. Will that work, then? Stew, donuts... I'll get some of that nice bread, too. Sourdough or french or one of those. Those aren't very expensive. Is that all good? Sounds like it is...
There was pleasure in planning meals, something she's always enjoyed, but it's especially fun knowing you're feeding two people who express their gratitude by shoveling the food down their throats as fast as possible.
Still, happy that she had a plan, happy that she had Royce and Rosemary to enjoy it, and just happy in general, she finally pulled the book closer and lowered her head to read.