Charlotte Carolina, scared but exhilarated, faced herself in the mirror and barely recognized the woman she saw. Sure, the face and body were the same (though maybe, just maybe, the effects of all those carrot sticks and rice cakes were beginning to show). But the woman behind those eyes? No, definitely not the person she was a month ago.
Not the same woman, not the same life, not the same household.
Two kids not returning to school. And what on earth to do with them? One still facing legal charges. The other -- Charlotte could be sure -- hell-bent on getting into serious mischief despite her brief moment of repentance. Everything turned upside down.
And then there was Charlotte herself. Crusading media mom. Muckraking, whistle-blowing wannabe. Home-schooling mother? Oh my Lord, how will I ever manage that?, she thought as she stood before the mirror preparing for Monday miseries to come.
Yet as she gave herself one last check before leaving for the office, she discovered that she didn't regret a thing. Not one thing.
"Tonio, look out for your sister today," she said, stopping at her son's bedroom door. "I've told her she'll get to go to the mall on Friday if she solves all her math problems, finishes that essay on The Chocolate War, and reads Animal Farm. Maybe you could quiz her a little?"
She didn't like setting brother up over sister. That wasn't likely to lead to anything good. Worse, what would she do if brother ended up in jail or juvie? But for the moment, she wasn't sure how else to manage.
"Mom," Tonio sighed, "I've got stuff to do, too, you know."
"Just bear with me a few days. I'll work out something better, I promise. In the meantime, I really appreciate you helping out."
"Well," Tonio said with a wry grin, "Since you made my bail and all, I guess I can do it. Just this once. Just for you."
Mother and son exchanged smiles as she headed for the front door and another wonderful day in the gray cubicles of CYACorp.
Charlotte didn't realize that solutions to her dilemmas were about to arrive in the classic "good news/bad news" fashion.
* * *
The phone on her desk shrilled, shattering her computer-induced daze.
"Mrs. Carolina." It was Tonio's lawyer. "I have an interesting development to report. All charges against Tonio have been dropped." She could almost hear him smiling through the little holes in the telephone headset. But for a moment, she was too bemused to absorb the news.
"All three charges. Dropped."
"Well ... that's great. That's wonderful! But ... why? I thought we were in for ..."
"I know. I thought so, too. A long fight and possible time in juvenile detention, at the very least. Not to mention a court order to take the ASVAB. But ... your son's in the clear."
"Now don't take this for gospel because it's only courthouse scuttlebutt. But seems that somebody contacted somebody, who contacted somebody. Bottom line is that the somebody in question really didn't want Tonio's case getting more publicity. That somebody didn't want a lot of publicity about schools being used for military recruiting, or about Alexander Hamilton High forcing boys and girls into a Pentagon database. He figured maybe the Pentagon would be better off if this whole thing just quieted down and died away."
"Like I say, just courthouse scuttlebutt. But the name O'Day was mentioned. Thought you'd like to know."
Charlotte thanked the lawyer, hung up, and was just beginning to absorb the good news when the bad-news shoe dropped.
"Charlotte," her stern-faced supervisor said, stopping at the entrance to her cube. "You're wanted in Human Resources."
"HR? What for?"
"You're wanted in HR. Just go."
Suddenly chilled, she rose silently and made her way through the vast gray maze toward what she felt sure was to be an ominous fate.
* * *
Half an hour later a security guard escorted her out the grand glass doors of CYACorp. In one hand, she lugged a plastic bag of personal possessions from her cube. In the other she clutched her bag, which contained a two-week severance check.
Pale and still trembling, she wasn't sure exactly what had happened. "Security violations." Yes, she'd committed those. "Unauthorized computer access." Yes, she was guilty. But why hadn't the HR manager looked her in the eye? Something more. She was sure there was something more.
The guard escorted her all the way to her car, waited as she got in, then watched as she drove out of the parking lot. She didn't really want to drive in such an emotional state. She wanted to sit a moment behind the wheel and catch her breath. But the guard's eyes were relentless upon her. The heel of his hand rested casually, yet threateningly, on his gun. So she drove.
She drove about a block. Then she pulled into the parking lot of another business, shut off the engine, and sat there shaking. She craved a cigarette. Really, really, really needed a cigarette. Desperately. Surely a girl should be able to have just one smoke at a time like this, even if she is trying to reform.
Spotting a C-store down the block, she eased from behind the wheel of the Taurus and started to pace rapidly toward Winstons and relief.
The early spring afternoon was sunny, unseasonably warm. The trees lining the road were filled with songbirds. It didn't take long before Charlotte began to slow and to look around her. Though cars and SUVs whizzed by, the air still managed a tang of blossoms.
She stopped. It's Monday afternoon and I'm not trapped in a little gray box. Monday afternoon and I don't have to go to work tomorrow. Monday afternoon and the sun is shining. Monday afternoon and I can go home and be with my kids. And help them with their lessons. Monday afternoon and no matter what the future holds, right now, at this moment, my life belongs to nobody but me. She couldn't remember the last time she could have said any such thing.
Charlotte Carolina stood still in the sunshine for a long, calm moment, breathing deep. Her spirit swelled until she thought it would burst out of her on white-dove wings. She turned away from her frantic errand and strode with head high toward her car -- and home.
* * *
She had just one regret. The Tribune reporter blew her off. Had he ever made any of the calls he promised? Maybe he had. And maybe, she thought, that's what got me fired. She'd probably never know. But his last words to her had been, "Forget it. You tried. But even if you were right, lady, it wouldn't have made any difference."
Spring was glorious and summer stretched temptingly ahead. True, there was no justice for the powerful. True, there was no money for the powerless. But unemployment was enough to keep the Carolina family scraping by. For now. And, really, it was a pretty good thing, being home with the kids. "School" turned into visits to museums and excursions to historic sites, or sometimes just into family discussions or even making repairs together on the old Taurus. Yeah, sometimes "discussions" turned into temperamental outbursts from the ever-volatile Jennifer. But overall, life was surprisingly peaceful.
And the lawyer said that the school, the health department, or HRSA was likely to settle soon enough for Jennifer's vaccination catastrophe. Charlotte would have to find other work. Soon. But for the moment, life was good. It was wonderful being part of the kids' lives again. And being part of her own life.
"Hey, how about we all take a trip together?" she suggested one day. "Just drive. We'll pack our own food. Camp out. See some pretty scenery. We can't spend a lot, but maybe we can have some adventures."
"Sure," Tonio agreed instantly.
"Do we hafta?" Jennifer moaned.
What Charlotte didn't tell the kids -- not right out, anyhow -- was that she didn't want to come back home -- at least not any longer than it took to pack the family's few most important possessions. She didn't want to come "home" to Toad O'Day's district. No place could possibly be "home" where schools were military recruiting centers and teenagers were encouraged to take license without taking responsibility. So while the kids packed for a vacation road trip, Charlotte cleaned their little rental house as though she never planned to live in it again.
One afternoon, sorting through the junk in her nightstand, she came across the dog-eared notepad with The Lunatic's ravings on it. But of course, in light of all that had happened, they didn't seem like ravings any more. They all made a certain sort of weird sense. Hard choices. Learning to dance. Being a friend moving from darkness to light. They all made sense, that is, except the crazy man's next-to-last comment, which still seemed like ... well, the raving of a crazy man.
She threw the notepad away with all the other accumulation of a life she wanted to leave behind.
Then one day, while she was busy cleaning out the last of the clutter from the last of the closets, the doorbell rang.
At first she didn't recognize the slight, wiry young man who stood on her doorstep. And why should she? She had seen him only once, and that was many months ago. He smiled, bowed slightly, and held out a thick padded envelope. Only when he spoke did she make the connection.
"Angry woman brings truth," he said inscrutably. "Toad in sheep's clothing will be brought low by ewe in polyester."
"What?" she gasped.
Qwai Ching Paine gave a little sigh. There was so much he still had to learn about proper practice of monkey-fu. "Oh heck," he said, "Just look at what's in the envelope. You'll know what to do." And while Charlotte stood sputtering and staring down at the thick package in her hand, he slipped away.
She never even got a chance to thank him. Though in fact, she was about to be more grateful to Her Very Own Lunatic than ever.
* * *
"Here," Charlotte said to the Tribune reporter as she once again sat across from him. She thrust a paper-wrapped package across his grubby desk.
"Whiskey?" he said, unwrapping it.
"Irish," Charlotte said, "I thought you needed it. I'm not sure why. Don't worry, it's not a bribe. I really came to bring you this." She handed across Qwai's padded envelope. "I made copies of everything," she added. "So if you don't do anything with it, someone else -- maybe one of those young reporters who wants your job -- will."
The reporter spilled the envelope's contents out amid his desktop clutter. Mini-CDs and photocopies of documents spread out before him. He began to paw through them.
"What is this?" He pawed some more. Examined a copy of what appeared to be a bank record. "Where did you get this?"
"I'm not going to tell you. But if you listen to those discs you'll hear two voices. Two men. They sound like they're meeting in a restaurant or maybe a bar. More than one meeting. One of the voices belongs to our friend Toad O'Day. The other ... well, it belongs to a man I think I've met, strangely enough. Though when I met him he sounded ... a little different than he does on those discs.
"Listen. Read. Then do whatever you want with the stuff. But frankly, I don't care any more. I'm leaving."
As she departed, the reporter was inserting the first of the mini-CDs into his computer. The voices of Toad O'Day and The Representative from the Agri-Tech Industrial Coalition soon rose over the subdued murmur of a discreet Georgetown bistro. The voices eventually discussed a certain bill to force RFID chips into farm animals in exchange for certain favors. The voices began to make their way into history.
* * *
The Carolina family drove. And drove. At first, they rambled aimlessly, visiting state parks and historic sites. Then they drove discussing history. Tonio, who'd been doing his homework, had a lot to say. Jennifer mostly sulked in the back seat, occasionally uttering complaints about her absolutely unendurable boredom.
Eventually, without conscious intent, they turned westward. Still driving aimlessly, they headed over the Appalachians and toward the Mississippi. Then they ventured even farther, to where corn-belt green turned to prairie yellow. Eventually, the Rockies rose in the distance.
When talk ran out, they tuned in the radio. That was fine in the crowded east. But out there in the yellow and brown lands, radio pickings are slim. You can take your choice, mostly, between "cryin', dyin' and goin' home" music or biblical exhortations.
Jennifer was in the front seat one day doing some heavy channel-flipping when a fragment of a news report flashed by: "... his party colleagues are said to be pressuring him to resign amid the growing scandal ..."
Jennifer poked the scan button in futile search for her kind of music.
"Wait! Wait!" Charlotte cried. "Go back. Find that news report again!"
"It appears that the scandal may even spread into the Senate," the news voice continued, "where the food security bill was equally heavily promoted by ..." static interrupted the broadcast and it took an hour before they found another station broadcasting the news. But then as they neared Denver, it seemed every station was talking about nothing else.
"... The Agri-Tech Coalition denies any involvement ..."
"... the embattled Rep. O'Day denied ..."
"... what pansy-livered moron thought it would be a bright idea to microchip itty-bitty chickens?" (This from a famous commentator noted for performing with half his drug-addled brain tied behind his back. He neglected to mention that he had recently supported the "Chip in Every Chicken" bill, declaring it "absolutely vital to our homeland security" and proclaiming that "anybody who doesn't think so should be hanged as a traitor.")
And from NPR: "... Of course the Food Security Act is, to quote the House majority leader, 'Dead, dead, dead. And I mean dead.' After this, every congressman is running as fast as possible away from any association with the tainted legislation. For an analysis of how this development will affect the poor, minorities and women, we go to ..."
The Carolinas spent the night camping high up in a mountain pass between Cheyenne and Laramie, under a silent, starlit sky.
In the morning they drove into Laramie and treated themselves to a rare restaurant breakfast. In the restaurant they borrowed a crumpled copy of the Casper Star-Tribune left by an earlier diner.
the 72-point headline screamed.
FBI OPENS CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION
Charlotte smiled. Somehow, she was not at all surprised when she turned to a small boxed item on the second page that asked: "MYSTERY: WAS AUSTRIAN BANK ACCOUNT BOGUS?" The story went on to say that an unnamed inside source hinted that while Ted O'Day might have believed he was taking a bribe, in fact, the bank account and its sources of verification appeared to have been the work of a mysterious team of forgers and hackers.
"Was O'Day caught in a sting?" the gossipy article asked. "In the meantime, authorities are still trying to locate the young Asian man seen meeting with O'Day in several Washington locations ..."
Charlotte was serenely sure they'd never find him.
* * *
Tonio was at the wheel as they drove up through Casper then hit the stretch of sagebrush locals call "the longest road in Wyoming." In a state known for endless miles of nothing, they'd struck the nothingest of all. After Tonio nearly fell asleep, Charlotte took over the driving chore.
Jen kept her companions awake complaining. Charlotte tuned out the girl's words, but felt perversely grateful for the noise. It kept her alert. Well, at least half alert.
After several more hours driving through nothing and sagebrush, one of Jen's remarks penetrated Charlotte's weariness.
"Gawd, look at that. They even have stupid names in this stupid place. What kind of idiot would come up with a name like ...?"
"What did you say?" Charlotte turned to look back at her daughter.
"I didn't say anything. I just saw a stupid sign that said something about some stupid, boring, dumb place called ..."
"Lonelyheart Pass." Charlotte said, wonderingly. And at last, the penultimate words of The Lunatic -- whom she now knew to be the cagiest lunatic in the whole, wide world -- made sense to her.
"And lonely heart tells the way."
Charlotte shoved the transmission into reverse and backed down the middle of the empty Wyoming highway until she could see the sign for herself. Lonelyheart Pass. The arrow pointed toward a ragged ridge of mountains. The prospect looked utterly forbidding.
Yeah, she thought. That's good. She turned the wheel and headed up the narrow two-lane highway that soon began to twist and turn through a field of boulders. She didn't know where she was going. But she knew that somewhere, up there beyond that pass, was her family's destiny.
Don't forget to stop back next Monday for the beginning of another great Hardyville series.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. Thank you once again to webmaster Oliver Del Signore for inspiration and for putting words into Qwai Ching Paine's mouth. Thanks to TCF's helpful gamesters. And of course to Tom P. for sparking the idea for this series. Hope you enjoyed the story.
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