I slouched back inside my makeshift dog house as I saw her jump from the first story window of the house and land with a thump on the ground. She brushed off the dust and grass blades from her blue faded jeans and turned back to notice the lights getting switched on inside the house followed by a low pitched mumbling of voices. Unfazed, Charlie took me in her arms and ran towards the front wooden gate of the house, got in the passenger seat of the dusty red Chevy which sped ahead.
All the members of the Davis family had grown up in front of my eyes, including the adults. My earliest memory of them is being rescued from a dog shelter, barely a few days after I was born, by seven year old Charlie and her mother, Stacy. Her father, Jim, a tall hairy creature was less than happy by the sudden addition of a four legged Boston terrier. Fresh out of college, the young parents were every bit as childish as their daughter. I was quickly given the position of the fourth member of the family in the initial few years when everything was dreamy and happy. I slowly won over Jim. The big brawny man was lazy and loved his alcohol bottles more than his wife.
I saved him a trip to the front door each morning to get the newspaper and created a distraction on a cue to move Mrs. Davis to the other part of the house when he was enjoying his daily pack of cigarettes behind the almond tree in the backyard, gazing at the neighbor's teenage daughter at midnight through her window.
Every family has secrets. They had some too. Each member always thought they were the only one being sly while the others were innocent victims while in fact all of them were living their life with a blindfold on. Nobody in the house knew everything, well except me. I was their secret keeper.
I remember hearing muffling noises in the backyard shed one summer when Charlie was away at summer camp. Through the creak in the wooden door I could see Jim with another blonde woman up against the wall. Out of impulse I ran inside the shed , startling the two secret lovers.
“Oh it’s alright honey. It’s just the dog. Stacy will not be home for another couple of hours.” Jim said assuring the startled woman as they got back to business and I hid myself behind a lawnmower looking intently at them as though I was registering every move to report back to Charlie.
It was one of Jim’s birthday parties where Stacy met William, her husband’s co-worker. Every adult gathering in the house was pretty much the same. Yellow chandelier lights gave the dark floor board a shine which was not usually seen. Food and drinks were kept on a table in the parlor while coasters and cigarette packets were scattered on the coffee table. With an addition of 90s music from Stacy’s collection, every party held in the house was a roaring hit.
Jim was busy impressing his bosses while Stacy was busy chatting with her new found interest. Unlike her husband, I knew she wouldn’t divulge in anything immoral. She was standing near the patio door with one hand resting on her waist and the other against a piano as she threw her hair back and laughed as the summer breeze played with her bright stole.
“I have to say Stacy, I am really surprised. I came here half expecting to be bored but now here I am standing with my gorgeous old batch mate.” William said in his refined upper class tone, making Stacy blush.
“Well, technically, you were my senior. We were in different departments. I wonder how we never met on the campus of the University.” Stacy said.
It was evident that the two of them had immediately hit it off and were regretting never having met each other a couple of years back. Stacy was known in her family for being the model, loyal wife who tolerated her husband’s failings in career, flirtations with other women and alcohol addiction. Stacy was trying hard to control her fascination for the well educated man in front of her while Jim on the other hand was rubbing his hands against the same woman’s thighs, who was present in the shed the previous summer. Charlie was sitting on the rug, busy watching her favorite cartoon show, oblivious to the addictive laughter of a house full of people.
Following Charlie throughout the day was my normal routine.
“Oh look its Benji!” She squealed one afternoon after getting off the bus with a tall boy. She ran through the sidewalk to hold me up in her arms and then pass me off to her new friend.
Thus began a new era.
I don’t really remember a particular day, a specific moment after which Charlie became a teenager. I wouldn’t say that she was going through her rebellious phase, as many years later in a different country, in a different city, she was still the same. Stability and sensibility were not one of the many good qualities I saw in Charlie. I loved this girl more than anyone else in the world but I wasn’t blind to her shortcomings. She was kind to others but she would do everything in her power to wreak havoc in her own life.
It was a couple of days after junior high started that she snuck out with me through the back door. She kept me on the front basket of her bike which was so small that I had to stick two front paws out to adjust. That’s how most of my nights were spent. Just Charlie and me, recklessly riding around the city with the cold Boston air hitting our faces as we went to some new shady place which would scare the life out of her mother if she ever found out. It was one of those nights where we were present in a downtown drive in theater where she met Kaleb. He was a mechanic who worked part time in a nearby garage. I don’t know about Charlie but I certainly fell for him just by looking at his puppy brown eyes and crooked smile. They made me sit in the front next to decks of popcorn and cola as they recreated scenes from Cruel Intentions which was playing on the big white screen ahead, in the back seat of his dusty car. Out of all her boyfriends, Kaleb lasted the longest. He was from the wrong side of town, was hated by Stacy and bolder than any other human I had ever encountered. I would lazily stretch on her bed as she would talk to him for hours on end after midnight, drawing hearts on the window pane of her bedroom with a new cassette playing in the background. I tagged along with them everywhere; drag clubs, strip joints, broken down garages, everywhere.
It was soon after her fourteenth birthday that Jim left the family for the same woman I had seen in the shed so many years back. I felt a pang of guilt as I hid behind Stacy’s legs. I wish I could have warned her. Charlie was heartbroken. It’s bittersweet when teenage girls get their hearts broken by a their childhood sweethearts for twenty years later they can joke about it and tell their children about how childish they were but its earth shattering, when the guy turns out to be their father. Now that I look back, as horrible as it was for Charlie, Jim leaving was the best thing that ever happened to Stacy.
My guilt towards Stacy faded away in the next couple of days as visits by William became frequent. Unlike Jim, he was the man she deserved. It was a Monday afternoon and Charlie was at school when I saw both of them curled up on the sofa.
“We need to tell Charlie that we are getting married.” Stacy said looking at him.
“Jim was such a fool. How could he hurt his sweet daughter so much?” William said.
“We can move into a new house if you want.” She said changing the topic.
“We can do that after she’s left for college. This is the house where Charlie spent her childhood and I don’t want to part her with it.”
William was the father Charlie should have had growing up. I really liked him. He was kind and loving but Charlie did not let her guard down, not until she was in college and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that she missed her step father more than anyone else. After that, they became inseparable.
High school was a tough phase for her. Charlie left Kaleb shortly after her father moved out.
“I will never be able to trust another guy again. They are all the same.” She used to say.
Her father had left her with a scar so big in her heart that it two years of being drowned in drugs and endless therapy talks from Stacy and William to get her back together again. Out of all the years I spent with her, I hated these the most. The only time I would see her was when she would be changing around midnight into ripped clothes to join her new drug addict friends. She would come home the next morning, sometime before dawn, and William and I would be standing on the front porch waiting for her.
“Get dressed before your mother sees you.” William would say kindly, handing her a glass of water and an aspirin. This constant drug problem landed her into the Emergency room of Boston General Hospital. The police did not charge her as the officer of the area had known William from their school days.
Fear of losing her life and ending up as her drunken failure father was what finally woke Charlie up. She got rid of the stash she kept in her room, said goodbye to her punk friends and tried to focus on school again. She tried to keep up the rebellious carefree rouse but her parents were uncontrollably happy as they slowly realized that she was thinking about college seriously.
We were sitting at Burger King with her friends, trying to solve math problems when I noticed a familiar car parked outside. She eventually ignored Kaleb, convincing herself that she had moved ahead in life and he wasn’t fit for her anymore but then came the time to go college and the realization that she might never see him again. A huge party was held at the house with her family, friends and neighbors. Her parents were busy showing her off to their colleagues while she looked around at the house which she had grown up in.
“Northwestern is so lucky to have her. It wasn’t her first choice but its closer to home.” William boasted. Charlie retired to her room before midnight to check her luggage one last time. She had stuffed her bags with videotapes and old pictures as if she wanted to keep pieces of her childhood with her forever.
Around three the next morning, a red Chevy stood outside on the street as Charlie, for the one last time, leapt though her window and snuck out of the house. I was happy seeing her happy. She had Kaleb, she didn’t need me anymore but to my surprise she turned towards the dog house, picked me up and put me in the backseat. It was just like those old days, riding around the city.
“I never really asked you. What’s his name?” Kaleb asked looking at me.
“This is Benji.” Charlie smiled as we sped through the highway.