It was a light, trilling melody, reminiscent of a carol, but not a happy one—more like those sad songs Charlie heard on the radio about poor people or loss, created in a half-hearted attempt to reject the commercialized truth of the season. With a haunting hum, the tune looped through his head: One, two, three, two, three, two, one. There was a plodding quality to it, which made him feel somewhat impatient. But Charlie probably would’ve felt impatient anyway, lying on the uncomfortable and coarse carpet of his bedroom floor, staring up at the ceiling, a notebook of half done and wholly forgotten homework pushed away almost an hour ago.
It occurred to Charlie that the music was annoying, but not intolerable… more intriguing if anything. He suspected this was partially because for the last two weeks, he’d had a rather lewd rap stuck in his head which his friend Jack had played for him. It had been tacky but catchy and had taken root deep in Charlie’s misshapen brain, torturing him for what felt like an eternity. Charlie had no idea when it had stopped, just as he had no idea when this sad symphony had begun. Not that it really mattered.
There was a low grumble as Charlie’s stomach gave a decisive shudder. He’d forgotten both breakfast and lunch in his haste to catch up on his work, and even now, he found he had no desire to get up and scrounge some sustenance for the day. As of late, this had become a common occurrence.
One, two, three, two, three, two, one.
Charlie stared at the immobile ceiling fan, a large weight pressing down upon his tight chest.
Charlie got a B- on his homework, which was more than he expected. This should’ve made him feel significantly better, but it didn’t. Instead, Charlie found his mind leaping forward to the two papers due at the end of the week, and the sheer density of the studying he would have to do for his math midterm and the way he’d smiled a bit too long at the boy who sat next to him in Social Studies, and how tired he was. These thoughts spun through his stomach like a spinning blade, leaving sharp nausea behind every short breath Charlie took.
Instead of taking the bus home, Charlie decided to walk. He felt that there was a chance the fresh air would do him some good, and more importantly, he had no desire to cram into the overcrowded yellow tin alongside the other students, who seemed to crackle with a strange energy Charlie was incapable of matching. Even around his friends, like Meg or Jack, Charlie could feel this strange gap between his brain and his eyes, so that his thoughts and feelings were stranded indefinitely away from the action all around him. There was a lonely claustrophobia to this sensation.
Charlie felt more at ease on the side of the road (there were no sidewalks where he lived), the wind whistling over his bare arms and legs and drawing goosebumps from his flesh. There was no avoiding the emptiness, but he could immerse himself in it. At times like these, there was no Charlie… just one foot in front of the other, deep breaths of fresh air, and the occasional shiver timed to an inaudible beat. The absence ached but kept Charlie warm.
He continued on like this for some time until the sky began to darken, and Charlie realized with a jolt that he had been walking for a very long time. Though he should’ve long since arrived at home, Charlie was still on the side of the road, or more accurately, a road, an unfamiliar one at that. On his left stretched a sort of highway, empty in an eerily familiar way, and on his right, a forest, so thick and dark that he could see nothing beyond the initial line of pines. A cold dryness settled behind Charlie’s tongue. For the first time in hours, he stopped.
Nervously, Charlie reached into his shorts’ pocket, only to find his phone was gone. His heart quickened, thumping with a tense urgency as he realized that he was absolutely, completely, lost.
Before Charlie could descend into a proper panic, he became aware of a soft whirring steadily increasing in volume. Whirling around, the boy caught sight of an odd silhouette in the distance, growing closer as it moved—no, bounced—towards him. As the shape grew larger, Charlie realized it was a large bicycle, dragging along what appeared to be some sort of carriage built out of rickety wood. Riding the bicycle was the small, gangly form of a little boy, with dark hair, dark skin, and freckles that Charlie could pick out several feet away.
As the carriage grew closer, it began to slow down. Unconsciously, Charlie took a step backwards, wondering if he should move, or flee. Indecision held him in place as the young boy came to a stop, saluting Charlie from his red bike.
“Hello,” said the young boy.
“Hello,” said Charlie.
“I think I’m lost,” the young boy told him earnestly. It seemed to Charlie that this boy was somewhat familiar.
“So am I,” Charlie scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t be,” the boy gave him a sad smile. “I’ve been lost for a very long time. It isn’t your fault.” He extended a hand in greeting. “I’m Charlie.”
Charlie blinked. “I’m Charlie,” he stuttered. “I mean, that’s also my name. My name is Charlie.”
“What a strange coincidence,” the young boy laughed, but there was no warmth in his eyes. Only a kind of foreboding. It occurred to Charlie that the reason that this Other Charlie looked so familiar was that he had the same flushed cheeks… the same half dimples… Charlie saw every day in the mirror. Aside from the odd, misplaced freckles, they could’ve been brothers.
“Where are we?” Charlie asked the other, his voice dim.
“I’m not sure,” Other Charlie confessed. “I thought it was a dream but now I’m not so sure.”
Charlie blinked. “Why?”
“Well,” Other Charlie tilted his head, puzzled, as if the answer should be obvious. “You’re awake.”
The two Charlies lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Charlie hated uncomfortable silences… he was a part of so many, and they always made him feel so uncomfortably present.
“Would you like a ride?” Other Charlie asked abruptly, ending the brief torment.
“Where?” Charlie frowned. “We’re lost.”
“Somewhere else I suppose,” Other Charlie shrugged. It was a nonsensical answer but this was a nonsensical situation and Charlie saw no reason why he should continue to wander aimlessly.
“Yes, please,” Charlie nodded, and Other Charlie gave a small smile.
“Cool,” he said, beginning to crack his knuckles one by one. “There’s plenty of room in the back. Just don’t sit on Tiberius.”
Charlie’s stomach turned somewhat at this statement… there was somebody else here? As much as Charlie was frightened of this nightmare’s strange silence, he was far more uncomfortable with the idea of having to fill it with conversation. Nervously, he climbed into the misshapen wooden carriage; and immediately, Charlie was faced with a very strange sight. This carriage, ugly and makeshift as it was on the outside, was oddly colorful on the inside. Though constructed of the same uneven wood, and lacking any sort of comfortable cushions, the cart was painted just about every color of the rainbow, a dizzying assortment of colors which drew attention to a single button hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier.
On the bench across from Charlie sat a small greenish brown lump, which he realized momentarily to be a turtle hiding inside its shell. It took a few more seconds for Charlie to recognize that this turtle must be the Tiberius the Other Charlie had spoken of. Charlie could not discern how he felt about this.
“Are you comfortable back there?” Other Charlie called back, his voice clear through the thin carriage walls.
“Yes,” Charlie murmured, feeling somewhat dizzy.
“Good,” the young boy replied, and the carriage jolted suddenly and began moving. There were no windows in the carriage, so Charlie could not know for sure, but it seemed to him they were moving pretty fast. He wondered why; it wasn’t as if they had anywhere to go.
The Other Charlie began humming shortly, an unfamiliar tune, quick and lively, with a very distinctive beat that quickly ingrained itself in Charlie’s head. Charlie was surprised to find he didn’t mind this—there was something idyllic, he found, about this journey, about the silence only broken by the humming of the young boy up ahead, and the solitude, shattered only by the quiet turtle who never once emerged from his shell. Strange as it was, Charlie would be perfectly content if he and Other Charlie and Tiberius never found their way out of this strange place. Sure, he wasn’t happy per se… but his chest didn’t hammer quite so hard here.
The sudden roar of an engine streaking past the carriage shattered Charlie’s calm. Starting, he thrust the door to the carriage open, peering ahead only to see the silhouette of a large vehicle vanishing into the distance. “What–?”
“That’s the Caterpillar,” Other Charlie explained dully from his bicycle, never once looking back at his double.
“The Caterpillar?” Charlie frowned.
“Yes,” Other Charlie’s posture slipped ever so slightly. “Please, get back into the carriage. I’ll explain.”
Obediently, Charlie sat back onto the uncomfortable bench, closing the door behind him. At the squeaking of the carriage’s rusty hinges, Other Charlie began speaking.
“The Caterpillar seems to know the way out of here,” Other Charlie intoned, his voice flat with disappointment. “It drives past us every hour or so. But it moves so fast, I’ve never been able to catch its attention.”
Charlie opened his mouth, about to suggest the Other Charlie honk at the Caterpillar the next time it passed, before he remembered that Other Charlie was riding a bicycle without so much as a bell. His face flushed, and he gave an inward sigh of relief in his close call with stupidity.
It didn’t take long for Charlie to get comfortable again; so comfortable, in fact, he found himself nodding in and out of sleep with his head against the carriage’s bouncing wooden frame, the lilting voice of Other Charlie echoing in his thoughts. He wasn’t sure how long he rested like this, but once, when he opened his eyes, he found that Tiberius had apparently wandered onto his lap and decided to stay there, nestled into Charlie, his small green head and legs finally visible from their shell. Other Charlie was no longer humming his jaunty lullaby. Instead, the young driver was muttering urgently to himself.
“It’s risky, but it could work,” Charlie could barely make out the words. “They’ll help them… maybe…”
“Er… Charlie?” Charlie called out to the driver, careful not to disturb the sleeping turtle. “Everything okay?”
There was a brief silence, just as painful as the last. “Yes, I’m fine,” Other Charlie called back. “We’re almost there. Please, rest.” And then the young boy began humming once more.
Charlie hadn’t intended to fall back asleep, but he evidently had no say in the matter as the next thing he knew he was jerking awake at the sound of a thickening thud. His eyes flew open as gravity seemed to lose all meaning, and the carriage suddenly tipped over violently, sending Charlie and Tiberius careening with fearful yelps out of the splintering wagon and onto the hard, painful asphalt.
Groaning, Charlie struggled to clear his spinning head and make sense of his surroundings. He could hear a man chattering urgently but couldn’t make out the words. Despite the pain shooting through his battered body, Charlie struggled to his feet, turning towards the voice. His vision cleared, ever so slowly, and Charlie’s heart wrenched out of place as he witnessed the scene before him.
Other Charlie’s twisted body and bicycle lay in front of the stopped Caterpillar… a long, yellow vehicle which Charlie now knew to be a schoolbus. The driver paced back and forth, his eyes wet with tears.
“I didn’t even see him,” he wrung his hands, his eyes meeting Charlie’s with a familiar desperation. “He just swerved in front of me.”
“Of course he did,” Charlie shook his head. His frown felt wrong on his face.
The bus driver made some calls and as the ambulance pulled up, invited Charlie onto the bus. Numb, Charlie climbed the stairs and took a seat at the front of the vehicle, ignoring the stares of his peers. When he got home, he floated as if in a dream to his bedroom, laid down next to his homework on the carpeted floor, and closed his eyes. He could hear Other Charlie, and his song– One, two, three, two, three, two, one—only it was slower, sadder.
Charlie stared at the immobile ceiling fan, breathing in and out as if he was tasting air for the first time.