I needed some writing motivation this week and decided to try another Chuck Wendig challenge. This time it was to put together three things chosen with the random roller. I got “poison”, “a shopping mall” and “a box of photos.”
Charlene wasn’t good at much, but she never forgot a face. That first day he turned up at her counter, ordering a cinnamon raisin bagel, toasted, and a hazelnut coffee, she knew it was him.
“Just opened up the hat store down at the end of the mall. Think yours is the only place in here that has flavoured coffee, so I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” He winked, and pushed his fifty cents in change back towards her hand. “A tip.”
Charlene couldn’t speak, but she nodded and he sauntered away, whistling.
When she got home that afternoon she kicked off her boots, threw her coat on the floor and thundered downstairs to the storage room. It had been years since Mom died, and she probably had the will now to sort through the boxes and suitcases without too much wallowing, but today she was on a mission for one particular box. She ripped tape and cardboard, tossed garbage bags full of clothes to the side, and finally found the grey shoebox. The lid was taped on all four sides, and written with black marker, in her Mom’s neat printing, was the word “photos”.
Her Mom only showed the photos to her once, that she remembered, and that was only because she needed a few pictures for a school project. She begged, and her Mom relented, but as she pried off the lid, it was clear she wasn’t looking forward to a stroll down memory lane.
It surprised Charlene that her Mom kept the photos at all — or specifically the two she had of him. But she suspected, hard as it was to think about, having those photos kept it real and present. Knowing his face was down there, locked away safe, but with her nonetheless, made it easier to keep the hate alive.
Charlene rifled through the pictures. Some had water stains and stuck together. The two of him were piled on top of one another, stuck between Charlene’s own grade one photo — the one where she had the missing front tooth — and a photo of her Mom and Aunt Joan, posing at mile zero on the Alaskan Highway. She’d taken that photo herself, the summer she turned fifteen and her Mom decided the three of them needed a northern road trip.
She gazed at the unbreakable sisters against the vibrant blue sky, then set it aside and turned her eyes back to him. She’d been right. Decades later and he still had the same crooked nose, cleft chin and deep blue eyes.
In the first photo, he stood with one arm draped around Aunt Joan, beer bottles in both of their hands. Aunt Joan was caught with her mouth open, in the middle of saying something, but he donned an easy grin.
The second photo was of Mom and Aunt Joan, their faces pressed close together. Back then, with Mom’s hair dyed blonde, they almost looked like twins. It would’ve been a beautiful photo if he hadn’t stuck his head in at the last minute. Cut off at his shoulders and hovering at the edge. He didn’t fit the photo. Just like he didn’t fit in their lives.
Charlene kept the two photos out, then closed up the box and threw it back on the disorganized stack. She looked again at his face and wondered how long after these pictures were taken that it had happened. Even when her Mom finally came clean with what he did to her, she didn’t give many details. And knowing how hard it was for her to talk about, Charlene never pressed.
But then, and a few times after, she said to Charlene, “It was an awful thing that happened. Awful for me, awful when Joan found out, but you were what came of it and I always focus on that. You are the beautiful flower who grew from a terrible place.”
She wondered if Mom, wherever she went after her death, could see into Charlene’s own brain and heart now and know what she was planning. She wouldn’t like it, but maybe she’d understand why it needed to be done.
Charlene went back upstairs and turned on her computer. It was time to do a little research. There was no doubt she wanted to shatter him, just like he shattered her mother. But she didn’t want to get caught doing it.
Monk’s Hood. So pretty and blue. She knew exactly where it grew, in the mountain park a little outside the city. Her Mom had pointed it out on their hikes, and always told her to stay away from it, but she had no idea it was so toxic.
She waited, and like she figured they would, his morning stops at her booth became regular. It was hard for her to hide her disgust, but if her smiles looked fake or strained, he never seemed to notice.
After a day or two, he asked her name. “It’s Charlie,” she said. No one called her that, and she was sure he didn’t even know she existed, but just in case his appearance in her life was more than coincidence, she tried to cover her tracks.
“And yours?” she asked.
“Darryl. You sure do make a good cup of coffee, Charlie. And I always like to start my days by looking at a pretty face.”
She nearly threw up at that one.
On his twenty-second appearance at her counter — and yes, she was keeping track — she did it.
“Oh, looks like the hazelnut ran out. Got some more brewing in back.” She took his styrofoam cup with her. She didn’t need more than a few drops, and mixed with all the cream and sugar he put in there, she knew he wouldn’t taste it. In a minute she was back with his full cup, and the new carafe of coffee.
“Have a great day, Darryl,” she said, flashing a genuine smile. She watched him walk back towards his store, sipping his coffee as he went.
Forty-five minutes later she heard the sirens outside, and watched as paramedics rushed through the door with a stretcher. A small crowd gathered as they wheeled him back out. His face was grey and twisted in pain. He clutched his chest.
“Looks like a heart attack,” an older woman next to her commented. “The poor man.”
“Yes,” Charlene said softly. “the poor, poor man.”