She winced as she leaned on her bed with one knee and felt down the side against the wall with her left hand. Caroline stepped forward to help and Charlie shook her head and came up with a red and white package of Marlboro cigarettes. She opened the cardboard lid and pulled out a cigarette and pack of matches. Caroline shook her head and smiled when Charlie held the pack out to her. She placed the cigarette into her mouth and looked around the room, taking it in. Reaching blind, she slid her hand between the mattress and box-spring and pulled out a tattered issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The raggy, wild eyes of Charles Manson stared up at her. Looking into those eyes rang a bell somewhere deep in her subconscious and she was tempted to look away. It was uncomfortable, looking at that picture of Manson, trying just as hard as he could to look like Jesus Christ. Forcing herself through the building anxiety, something inside her shifted and she suddenly felt stronger. More aware and grounded. Ever since her attack, she’d been irrationally afraid of Charles Manson, yet at the same time, fascinated with him and the trial. She’d watched as much of the trial on television as she could get away with. Rose disapproved, but Charlie suspected she was secretly as curious about the spectacle and scandal of it as everyone else.
While Manson never struck her as Christ-like or even particularly crazy, rather she saw him as a methodical and brilliant manipulator. Like a politician or rock star. There wasn’t anything sexy or attractive about him physically, yet there was something absolutely fascinating about discovering just how deep the Manson Family’s devotion to him went. That they would murder innocent people, hell murder poor pregnant Sharon Tate whose only crime was appearing in cheesy movies, that was intriguing.
Yet, at the same time, when she saw the footage of him, staring into the camera, her heart sped up and her breath went shallow. Something about seeing his face with those wild, animalistic eyes darting around, looking for something soft and innocent to land on and suck the life out of. It gave her shivers. She would wake up from nightmares of riding in the passenger seat of an old Volkswagen Bug with Charles Manson at the wheel, whispering dark secrets to her that she’d forget upon waking.
Often, before going to sleep, she would stare at the photos in that Rolling Stone article and try and understand why he stirred up such uncomfortable, conflicting feelings. Was it simply because he was the monster of her generation? She didn’t think so. There had been monsters already. The Zodiac killer, with his taunting letters to the press and cryptic codes, had been endlessly fascinating, though not particularly scary. Richard Speck raped and murdered an entire dorm full of nursing students only five years ago. No, there were other monsters. Manson was different. Something about his face and his eyes triggered a deeply rooted and instinctual feeling of panic that left her uneasy and shaken up.
Staring at the old magazine cover, she felt nothing. Nothing substantial. Whatever strange hold the image of this sad, grubby, white trash derelict had on her, it was gone. She saw him for what he actually was, a charismatic but ultimately misguided fool. A failed musician who was pissed at the world and funneled all his indignant, self-righteous anger into the heads of a bunch of lonely, doomed kids looking for meaning in a world where their classmates were being killed in a war that made no sense. This man who had so recently held a place in her heart as some sort of criminal mastermind with a nearly metaphysical, devil like understanding of how people functioned and how to push buttons, he had become nothing to her. A half-assed amateur boogie man, mugging for the cameras like a clown.
Charlie popped a match and lit her cigarette. After watching the flame burn for a moment, she held the match to the edge of the magazine and let it catch.
“What are you doing, doll?” Caroline asked, deliberately cautious. Charlie tasted the slightest hint of fear in her voice and it caught her off guard.
“I’m walking away,” Charlie said, barely more than a whisper. Caroline nodded, understanding, and watched as Charlie dropped the magazine onto her bed. The top sheet, which was crispy and covered in black dried blood, caught almost immediately, burning out in a circle of smoldering flame.
“We should leave,” Caroline said, backing out of the room. Charlie nodded and walked out of her bedroom, her shadow long and dancing on the wall in the light of the flames.
Standing in front of the house, watching the light flicker and intensify in the window of her bedroom, Caroline took her hand. It was a simple gesture, but it sent a shudder through her body. It occurred to her that it had been months since someone touched her with the intention of giving comfort. Caroline’s hand was cold and hard in her gloves, but that was okay. She squeezed Charlie’s hand and Charlie squeezed back. The drapes over Charlie’s bed caught and suddenly the flames were clearly visible through the window.
“Will you come with me?” Caroline asked her, looking into her eyes. She was at least six inches taller and Charlie had to look up to meet her eyes. They were kind, framed under immaculately manicured eyebrows and thick, probably false eyelashes that made her eyes look almost cartoonishly big. They flickered orange in the light of the fire. The smell of burning wood mixed with that vanilla scent Charlie associated with her guardian angel. It was strange to finally be standing there, looking into her eyes, which were beautiful. Everything about her was beautiful.
It occurred to Charlie then to wonder what exactly it was that Caroline wanted from her. That night was the first time she’d been in a position to actually speak to her in any sort of coherent, lucid headspace, and she was so wrapped up in the notion of being saved that she’d never even asked where they were going or what they were doing.
She supposed it didn’t matter. Anything was better than where she’d left. Abandoned and alone, injured and traumatized. Her mother had given her up, just as she’d forced her to keep and then give up the baby that had spent nine months living in her belly. The baby that had so recently been literally ripped out of her and taken away. The baby she both hated and loved, and now only wanted to forget. Desperately wanted to forget.
“Yes. I’ll go with you. Anywhere,” Charlie whispered. A strange feeling of fear rose inside her. The kind of rush she felt when she and Patrick had shoplifted from the same convenience store they bought comics and candy from. That feeling of real danger and sneaky mischief. The thought crossed her mind that Caroline might be a lesbian, and for a brief moment she’d considered whether or not she should be scared of this idea. Ultimately she decided that she didn’t care. While it wasn’t a sexual feeling, she found Caroline intoxicating and completely fascinating. It was as though she were surrounded by a cloud of comfort and happiness that she couldn’t understand or explain. Riding in her car was like riding through a wonderful dream. A dream that smelled like vanilla and popcorn. Always vanilla and popcorn. That was Caroline’s smell and it was wonderful. The very best smell in the world. If a little homosexual activity was the price of being able to live in that happy place, it was a fee she was more than willing to pay.
Besides, she never understood her mother’s nearly pathological hatred of the concept of homosexuality. Charlie wasn’t overly impressed with Rose’s religious ideology, but she understood the purpose of it. It just didn’t mean anything to her personally. It was mythology and affirmations that she neither needed or wanted. She also got that, biologically, human beings are designed to reproduce. That’s nature. Tab A, slot B and so on. But at the same time, people do all sorts of things that go against nature. People drive cars and build skyscrapers and rocket ships and fly through the air in jets. People constantly strive to fight nature and rise above it. That seems to be one of our defining characteristics as human beings. Why should she care if two people are happier living outside of the framework of nature? While she didn’t understand what drew someone to go that particular way, she also didn’t understand the vast majority of things people are compelled to do. Much of human behavior was a mystery to Charlie, and she suspected it was to most other people as well. And if nature demanded that her purpose in life was to reproduce, then nature could get fucked, because that option was taken from her anyway. So who cares what nature wanted?
So if Caroline wanted something like that from her, it couldn’t be any worse than the uncomfortable, pathetic fumbling in her shirt Patrick had stumbled through so long ago. It certainly wouldn’t be worse than what had happened to her in the desert. Caroline was beautiful. Not just pretty or cute, but absolutely stunning. She could do worse than kissing a beautiful woman who was able to fill her with joy simply by existing near her.
Looking up into her eyes, her grubby little hands encased in Caroline’s pristine white gloves, she leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on Caroline’s mouth, closing her eyes. Her lips were freezing and when she let her tongue touch them, they were plump and moist and instantly opened up a flood of flavor into her mouth. It was like licking the most amazing popsicle. Her mouth tasted like a carnival. Cotton candy and popcorn and cherry snow cones and caramel apples. The flavors flowed onto her tongue, one after another, and it should have scared her because it was unexpected and so strange, but it filled her with such amazement and joy that she could barely put a thought together, much less try and make sense of what was happening.
She broke away and as soon as the contact was gone, the flavors faded and she was left standing there, wondering what exactly had just happened. The kiss lasted barely a few seconds, but it felt like hours of wading through those strange sensations. Caroline looked at her, one eyebrow raised slightly, a half cocked smile Charlie would come to truly love one day.
“Okay then,” Caroline said simply, with a slight nod. Maybe she wasn’t a lesbian. Oh god, what had she just done?! Charlie’s eyes widened as she realized just how inappropriate that may have been if she misread the situation.
“Was that weird?” Charlie asked. Caroline’s smile broadened and she shook her head.
“No. It was fine. Just fine. Let’s get out of here before someone calls the fire brigade,”
Charlie nodded and followed Caroline, still holding one hand like a childhood friend, back to the Cadillac. The fire brigade. What century was she from?