Choose Your Own Charlotte
Rijn Collins

She’s in the way.

People too drunk to look down keep tripping over her boots. She doesn’t move them. She’s watching the crowd with a scowl and a pecan beer. It’s not her favourite drink but it’s all her stepdad had in the fridge, tucked behind her mum’s insulin capsules. She knows what happens to kids who come to parties empty handed; the rolled eyes behind their backs, the names.

Charlotte doesn’t like her name. She tried to be Charlie once but it didn’t stick, and the less said about the summer she embraced Lotte, the better. A man with uneven dreadlocks is trying to asking her about it, his gaze flicking from her face to her chest in a manner he thinks is unobtrusive.

Such a British name, he nods. So…classy. He takes a swill of beer and looks down again, at her curls spilling over the holes in her t-shirt.

Actually, I’m named after a song. She smiles sweetly, and scratches the tip of her nose with a little finger.

The Cure? The man is eager, earnest, with just the faintest whiff of bad breath.

Nah, my folks met in the parking lot of an Iron Maiden gig. I was conceived in the back of an Oldsmobile Cutlass while they played Charlotte the Harlot. She shakes her head ruefully. My mother never saw him again.

He frowns and then tries, for one brief moment, to smile. Is that true?

She looks over to the kitchen door, and lifts the pecan beer to her mouth. No. When she looks back, he’s gone, swept into the wash of the party.

Charlotte gazes around. A couple of kids from school are arguing over the stereo, one of them brandishing a bong in the shape of a bird, wings outstretched. She watches him scatter tobacco flakes across the carpet as he gestures. Behind them is a bookcase with sagging shelves spilling font halfway up the wall, tempting her fingertips along their spines.

She looks from the bong, to the bookcase, and back.

If she walks across to the boys, go to 2.
If she walks across to the bookcase, go to 3.

Story 2
She thinks the one with the bong is called Alvin. Or maybe Alex, or Aidan; she doesn’t really care. She smiles as though she does, and nods at the song he chooses as her hand reaches out for the bird bong. It’s cracked along its left wing, the gaps filled with snakings of super glue, and her finger traces the broken lines of the ceramic feathers. Aidan holds out a lighter. She bends down. Her chest floods with fire as the song uncurls from the stereo, someone on the couch singing along in a thin, flat voice.

She hands the bong back, the boys still arguing. She watches a couple dancing next to the TV. The girl is wearing heels so high all she can do is plant her feet and sway towards the boy.

Charlotte doesn’t wear heels. Charlotte doesn’t know how. There must be some kind of handbook that other girls read and then pass on – how to perform, to pretend and play nice – but it’s never been handed to her. She wouldn’t fucking want it anyway, she thinks as she stares at the girl’s shoes. They’re the colour her stepdad calls Slut Scarlet. She can almost hear him say the words, and the familiar flare of anxiety surges.

She tries to remember some of the tricks her counsellor has taught her to control her breathing. There was something about a white light, imagining inhaling it…or was it exhaling? She takes another swill of beer, and has to focus on swallowing it.

Charlotte turns to a chorus of shouts at the door; Tully, his frisky black dog dancing around his feet. Tully’s welcome at a party is always warm, in his pockets a lucky dip to keep the crowd up, down, or sideways. Charlotte watches his dog pounce at the screen door, scratching the flywire. Tully pushes the door open while Charlotte feels around in her bag for her purse. The cool night air floods in.

If Charlotte speaks to Tully, go to 4.
If Charlotte follows the dog outside, go to 5.

Story 3
The shelves are made of cheap plywood that look like they might snap at any moment. Charlotte stands on her tiptoes to scan the highest titles. They’re arranged by genre so she can move right past the sci-fi and fantasy. The autobiographies aren’t worth stopping for – everyone lies about themself, she’s not stupid – but the short stories just might be. As she slowly rests her feet back on the carpet someone comes up beside her.

He has a warm smile. Without thinking, she almost returns it. She looks down at the book in her hand instead, a bright green cover with a yellow suit jacket splashed across the front. He leans in towards her.

Kurt Vonnegut – good choice!

Is it? Her voice sounds so tight in comparison.

He takes it from her. He has a tattoo on the back of his hand of a tiny anchor, its chain reaching up his sleeve.

Yep, I love this one. Welcome to the Monkey House. He looks up at her and breaks into a grin. Want to play a game with it?

Charlotte looks at his straight white teeth. He flicks the pages from cover to cover, wiggling his eyebrows at her. She can’t help herself. She turns back to the bookshelf but it’s too late, she knows he’s seen her mouth twitch in response.

I’m not really into games.

It’s the truth. She watches his warmth flicker. There’s only an inch of beer in her bottle and suddenly she needs more, something to take the edge off. She takes the book from him then starts to slide it back onto the shelf. He reaches for it before it’s tucked in amongst the others, his anchor hovering above the yellow font of the cover.

Are you sure?

If she goes to get another beer, go to Story 4.
If she agrees to play the game, go to story 7.

Story 4
One man watches as she walks into the kitchen, a corner of his mouth curling into his version of welcome. She automatically reaches into her pocket and rubs the notes at the bottom.

Charlotte, how goes it?

She nods, coming to a stop with one boot resting on top of the other.

Have you got something for me, Tully?

He laughs. He has one rotten tooth, with its gray stain hypnotic to her each time he talks.

Straight to it, hey? No sweet talk with you. He shakes his head. Lucky I’m an understanding man.

She shrugs. Tully, you know me. She puts her hand out with the notes crumpled in the centre. Is the answer yes or no?

He turns to the wall and counts it. She slides her empty beer bottle onto the counter and waits. She’s just about to head to the fridge for another when she hears someone say Matthew’s name. Her spine straightens. She doesn’t want to look, doesn’t want to hear his voice after all this time. She doesn’t want a scene in the middle of a party. All she wants is what Tully has, now more than ever.

Tully! Yes or no? He looks up in surprise.

Based on this, girl, I have to say no…no it is.

Charlotte swipes the money from his palm, and takes a breath deeper than she means to.

Is there any way we could…you know, work something out?

She’s trying not to stare at his rotten tooth.

Honey, you know I don’t take IOUs.

A shoulder bumps her from behind, jostling her towards Tully. He reaches out to steady her. When his hand comes to a rest on her hip, he keeps it there.

Anything else you’re offering, Charlotte?

She feels his hand through her thin t-shirt. It’s been there before, once, when she didn’t have the money and her stepdad had been drinking and her mum yelling, and all she wanted was what Tully had in his pocket. This time the burn isn’t as bad but it’s there, it’s always there, and Tully knows it.

She can hear his dog barking through the screen door in two sharp yelps. Nirvana starts blaring somewhere and drowns it out as she thinks of the cool spring air on her face. Tully’s hand still rests on her hip, waiting.

If she says no, go to Story 5.
If she says yes, go to Story 6.

Story 5
The dog turns as the screen door falls shut behind her, his leg lifted against the base of a coconut palm. He runs over and jumps at her when she bends to scratch him. The fur behind his ear is velvet soft, his paws almost reaching her thighs. Her mum has never allowed pets, blaming it on their fur, but Charlotte knows she has no patience for small creatures; lord knows she never had any for small children. Charlotte is an only child, petless, siblingless, and, if you listened to her mother, shameless even on her good days.

The dog’s claws scrabble over the tiles as he bounds towards the swimming pool. The underwater lights make the surface glow. When Charlotte joins him the dog is staring at a striped beach ball, bobbing on the surface.

You want that, hey?

Her voice is so gentle it surprises her. The dog looks up with his head to the side.

Do you want me to get that for you, sweetheart?

Somewhere inside the house glass shatters. The dog whimpers softly as her fingers reach for his fur. Suddenly her hands duck under her t-shirt and it comes off in one quick movement, with her jeans not far behind. It takes longer to untie her army boots but soon there’s a small pile of clothes next to the pool’s edge. She slides into the water too quickly to even gasp when it hits her body; straight in, straight under, don’t show hesitation. Never show them hesitation, that much she knows.

When she reaches the beach ball she scoops it out of the water. The dog watches it bounce on the tiles and into a flowerbed, then turns back to her. She treads water, hands hooked into her bra straps as she stares into the house. She thinks of Tully and his magic pockets. She wonders whether Matthew is inside with his new girlfriend, the one he’s warned her to be polite to, no matter what.

Charlotte treads water and then suddenly she’s under it, deep under, headed down. With her feet against the pebble wash she tries to crouch on the bottom. She balances, her knees tucked under her.

When she opens her eyes she has to squint as the water surges in. She can’t hear a sound from the house anymore, just the muted pumping of her heartbeat. Her chest is starting to feel tight but she’s not going up yet, she’s never going up; they’ll have to come down here and get here.

She counts ten, twelve, fifteen seconds until her lungs send her upwards. She hears a sound burst from her throat as she breaks the surface that could be a yell or a sob, or a little of both.

Charlotte hauls herself up, panting, as the dog crawls forward on his belly. He inches closer and closer, head on one side, then the other, and comes to a stop just by her thigh. He presses his head into the warmth of her leg.

Charlotte listens to the laughter inside the house. The dog senses her every movement, each flicker of muscle and lift of her ribcage.

He keeps still and quiet by her side, listening as her breathing slows.

Story 6
They choose a bedroom at the back of the house. She doesn’t ask who lives there. A huge poster of the Eiffel Tower hangs next to the closet, edges curling with dried globs of Blu-Tack. While Tully unbuttons his shirt she stares at the tourists climbing the steps, winding their way to the very top of Paris. She counts ten, twelve, twenty tourists without taking her eyes off the poster.

Hey, are we doing this, or what?

She turns. He’s standing with his jeans undone, palms splayed her way. There’s a thin carpet of hair sprinkled across the acne on his chest.

I got business to do, remember.

She sits on the edge of the bed and reaches for her boots.

Well so do I, Tully. She almost spits his name across the room. He doesn’t notice as he reaches into his pocket.

Fuck it, leave the boots on, she decides. No reason to make this easy. She lies back on the bed and slides her t-shirt over her head. It’s not her good bra but none of that matters as he moves towards the bed. She takes the small bag he hands her and slides it into her boot. He waits until her head’s back on the pillow to climb on top, and reach for the button on her jeans.

Charlotte turns her face to the Eiffel Tower. She read once that a woman tried to suicide off it, but landed on a taxi roof. Turns out the driver rushed to her aid; they ended up getting married, or some bullshit like that. She scoffed when she read it, but wonders in some small part of her if that could be possible; if someone could really throw you a lifeline when you’re on your last ragged lungful of air.

She keeps her eye on the poster as Tully grunts. All she has to do, all she really has to do is keep counting the tourists as they climb, one foot after the other.

Story 7
He’s just so god damn…cheerful. He’s taller than her, dressed in a black hoody that smells like eucalyptus laundry softener. She can feel a slight buzz but whether it’s from him or the beer, she can’t quite tell. Either way, it’s not entirely unpleasant. She finally smiles, her head tilted back.

Go on then. What’s the game?

The boy winks, and lifts the book up to her.

This is a classic, right?

She nods.

If you say so.

He runs his thumb along the width of the book, flicking it from start to finish.

These people are so trashed they’re boring the hell out of me…Vonnegut would know how to fix them. I’m going to let these pages fall open, and whatever line I read first, I have to go up to someone and start a conversation with: no explanation, no excuses.

She shakes her head.

What if it makes no sense?

He taps the cover. It’s Vonnegut! It probably won’t – that just makes it better.

She looks around the party, lips pursed. The Bong Boys are still squabbling in the corner, while lined up along the couch are three girls pulling selfie faces into their phones, fake lashes fluttering.

You, sir, are on – you choose first.

He makes a serious face with one palm over the book, as though divining a secret. With a frown he flips it open. A nail slides down a page and comes to a stop. When he’s read it, he looks up at her and his whole face transforms as he laughs.

“I’m going to hitch into town and turn myself in.” Perfect!

She’s laughing too as she reaches for the book. He stands close to her while she flips it. She doesn’t mind when he places his hand gently on her shoulder and peers over it, doesn’t flinch at all. She’s still smiling when the book falls open in her palm, and they both lean forward.

Rijn Collins is an Australian writer with a fondness for red notebooks, black coffee, and stories about circus folk. She’s had over fifty short stories published in anthologies and literary journals, performed at festivals in Melbourne and Chicago, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She’s currently working on a novel, and trying not to include Elvis in it: so far, so good. More of her work can be found here.