The first time, nobody thought much of it.
Charley’s always trying to get attention, the youngest in the family, the baby everybody adores without really knowing why. Maybe she was kind of cute once, lisping when she first learned to talk. But she also crapped her pants half the time back then, so go figure.
She’s never seemed that special to me.
Now she’s in second grade, christened “student of the week” (i.e. teacher’s pet), chosen to take home the stupid class turtle and keep it in our room—like we have any space to spare. The thing reeks like feet, and I can’t get any homework done in there.
Our parents are seriously addicted to crime shows—you know what I’m talking about. Turn on the TV at nine or ten on any given night, and you’ve got these cloned series and spin-offs torn straight from the headlines. BORING. Seriously, how much creativity does it take to turn a news story into a TV drama?
But we only have one TV, thanks to my mom being the stay-at-home type and my dad earning a paycheck too skinny to afford more than basic cable. So when the crime shows are on, I’ve got my earbuds in and some vintage Beatles cranked up to drown out the stilted dialogue and full-screen shots of wrinkly forty-somethings.
Charley’s sprawled out on the living room floor working on her homework—coloring shapes. What I wouldn’t give to be back in second grade. She doesn’t even know the meaning of the term “quadratic formula.” Not that I do either, but that’s beside the point.
I’m doodling on my algebra homework, Mom and Dad are kicking back after a long day of washing laundry and droning away in some accounting office, respectively, and the TV’s all aglow with bloody crime scenes and pensive old people in expensive suits. Charley seems like she’s totally immersed in her shapes, when all of a sudden she jumps up and points at the screen, all serious and frowny.
“They’re not telling the truth!” She blocks my parents’ nightly dose of gamma rays, and they seem to wake up for the first time in the past thirty minutes.
“What’s that, Punkin?” Dad mumbles, not even bothering to stifle his yawn.
“Those people.” Charley points again, her ponytail dancing as she glances back at the screen. “They’re all lying.”
Mom leans forward and beckons her to come closer, probably just to get her out of the way of their viewing pleasure.
“What do you mean, Chuck?”
That’s their pet name for her. They don’t have one for me. But then again, how can you shorten Morgan and have it come off as cute? The most charming of my classmates came up with “Mmmm…Organ” a while back. NO thanks.
Honestly, if I wasn’t grounded for sneaking out with the girls last Friday night, I wouldn’t even be hearing any of this right now. I turn up my tunes, but it doesn’t help. Little “Chuck” has turned up her own volume.
“They’re lying! All of them!”
Second grade hysterics. That’s what too much homework will do to you.
Dad clears his throat and reaches forward to calm her down with a hand on the back of her head, smoothing down the wild ponytail. “They’re actors, Punkin. Of course they’re not telling the truth—it’s all just a show. You know that.” He pauses. “They’re pretending.”
She shakes her head and crosses her arms, pouting at him like she did when she was two. It wasn’t cute even then.
“Let’s get you ready for bed, Baby Girl,” Mom says at length, as if she’s just noticed it’s way past Charley’s bedtime—anywhere between 8 and 10 PM, usually.
They don’t seem to realize I’m here, but that’s fine. I’ve got more word problems with trains to climb aboard, and Dad’s staring at the TV again, frowning periodically to glance back down the hall as Mom carries Charley out of the room. She’s too old and too heavy for that, but nobody else seems to know it besides me.
The following night is a rerun.
Not the crime show, from what I can tell; but we sure are. I’m in the loveseat again with a fresh batch of algebra homework. Dad and Mom are sprawled out on the couch, drawn together by its sagging midsection. Charley’s on the floor with some more coloring. This time it looks like she’s labeling a world map.
I keep an eye on her as the TV drama unfolds. She doesn’t seem to even care what’s on tonight. No comments about the lying actors, no confused consolation from our parents. I settle in to finish my assignment with no familial drama—I hope.
“I didn’t know he was in this episode,” Mom murmurs.
“Guest appearance or something,” Dad says. “They’ve been advertising it all week.”
A glance at the screen tells me all I need to know. Some big-name actor from my parents’ generation is on the screen, handcuffed in an interrogation room.
“I didn’t kill her!” he’s shouting at the cops.
Charley throws down her marker and glares at the screen. “Stop lying!” she shouts back.
“C’mon Chuck, we’ve already talked about this,” Dad says.
She hangs her head and retrieves a magenta crayon for Bolivia.
The episode progresses as predictably as usual—not that I’m watching—but then there’s a twist at the end. The guest star—Branson-something, according to Mom—admits that he stabbed the episode’s beautiful young victim. (All of these shows have one.)
Charley stares at the screen, spellbound. “He’s telling the truth,” she says.
Mom and Dad glance at each other. They don’t know what to think.
But the next day, it’s all over the news: that Branson-somebody has been arrested in connection with his girlfriend’s death—stabbed sixteen times with a screwdriver in their Beverly Hills mansion.
And I can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s something special about our Charley after all…
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. His work has appeared in Cosmos, Nature, and the Wastelands 2 anthology. Stop by anytime: www.milojamesfowler.com
Image by Alan Cleaver