As I once knew it, the town of Charlotte was an afterthought. It harnessed a particular silence — entering felt like I was disturbing a perpetual motion machine. And yet my family barged in every year, widening the eyes of meek grocers who had not seen a new face in months. My mother had a neurological specialist there — she visited him for the latter half of August while my father watched motel TV and I wandered the streets. The town was empty, and those weeks were lonely, as I remember them. Everybody there seemed to mind their own business to a radical extent.
I would spend my days wandering down the streets, one foot in front of another, balancing on the fading yellow line. The birds stayed in their nests, the spiders in their webs. For lack of other options, I watched the sky and the ocean, moving endlessly into each other and colliding at some distant point. I personified the unknown for my entertainment. The sky and I had always agreed that this town had nothing going for it.
The sky was my only friend in Charlotte, really. Eight years old, the sulfury air was a consistency I liked. When I looked up, the rather forgettable shade of gray brought comfort in all my contempt. It was something under which to drink a warm cup of tea and wonder what lay outside the town. Charlotte, to me, is now a lost acquaintance who has likely gone wayward. The demise of that sky, once so full of triumph and fear, holds a small but oddly persistent space in my head. I often wonder what happened, but never enough to look.
What happened — dubbed “Charlotte’s Terror” by my father — took place over the last night of our last stay. I was a young teenager, wide-eyed, and beginning to tire of the perpetual gray above me. The world was darkening as the sun furthered beneath the skyline, but my blinds were down, so I would not have known. Instead of watching, I lay on my creaky motel bed, anticipating sleep. I thought happily of returning home the next morning. A crack on the ceiling began to taunt me.
That year, my insomnia had just begun creeping up on me. Sleeping was not the hell it would later become, but a rather frustrating thing that loomed throughout the day. I lay in bed earlier, hoping to give myself the time I needed. It was seven o’clock in the evening, and I could hear the television ringing out infomercials from my parents’ room next door. Exhaustion loomed, bouncing around the little echo chamber that dumb old Charlotte seemed to be.
There was a palpable tension that night. It was not only inside the sleepless thoughts of my thirteen-year-old self but in all my surroundings. The salt I breathed was fighting another force, one that encompassed the vast ocean a mile west, that would later drown a lighthouse keeper and the first floor of this motel.
Such tension remained for hours. The infomercial grew quiet and my ears rang out with the sounds of synapses. Why did the whole world seem so oblivious? I tore up the blinds and there she was, the Charlotte sky, all tired and heavy. She begged to be forgiven, to be freed of her sudden dark vice, while I looked back and forth. I had no idea what to do, so I watched in horror as the air whistled with fury. The sky broke in an instant, pushing on the weak panes of my window and drowning out a one-time Tupperware offer.
Charlotte’s sky cried for the perpetual, for the unchanging, and for all the timid grocery men who thrived in such stasis. It started with a quiet sort of upheaval, falling onto the cobwebs beneath bus shelters. The sky, so tall and graceful and frankly very pissed off, did not stop falling on us.
My eyes bulged out watching all this happen.
I had grown up in a noisy little suburban development which might have been perceived as unchanging but showed a hellish personality after years spent there. I lived amongst petty fights, angry lawyers, and monthly car accidents. If one was too involved, our suburb became very unpleasant. But in ignorance, it was mild and did not change.
Charlotte, however, was pleasantly idiosyncratic on the surface, but I found after many visits that I was the only changing thing about it. I would come back a little taller, with a lower voice and a new purpose. Nobody in the town seemed to like my presence all that much. But with a perfect dose of ignorance, Charlotte was but a pleasant walk on the beach or a row of unkempt Victorian homes. I know that a stranger would have fallen in love with it.
If the town had faced that same night of clamor only five years earlier, I would have been delighted. As I think many children do, I daydreamed of disasters and riots, probably either from the stories they would bring or out of pure morbid curiosity. But as I grew older, I became more aware and thus more anxious. I hoped for change to approach lightly, with a warning and a mild slope of difference.
But a light nudge on the shoulder was not what Charlotte needed. The town had begged for nothing less than pure chaos, and such chaos was finally given. The intensity of the moment ebbed into my mind, and just as it hit me just how frightening this all was, I ran into my parents’ room. A man selling high-absorbency toilet paper gazed at me. The tube television crackled and choked quietly beneath the uprising of the sky.
My mother looked at me. “Dexter?” she said. Had she not looked out the window, I wondered? Could she not hear what was going on?
My father turned his head from the television. “What a night!” he said. “Pray for the sewers.” I bit a piece of my index fingernail and looked at the space between them.
“Should we leave?” I asked scantly. My mother raised her eyebrows — I could not be heard over the rain.
Perhaps they were so unaffected because of the unpredictability of our hometown. Our suburb, which my parents had both grown up in, frequently sent inverted umbrellas into trees. Outdoor events were often canceled, for our sky did not have the patience of Charlotte’s. Everybody at home was so aggravating, so untrusting of the government and the grocery store and their neighbors, that if I were the sky, I would do my best to halt their endeavors.
However, the grey sheet above Charlotte lived in quiet frustration, as did its citizens. People there did not often speak for themselves. They woke up, ate breakfast, and greeted their neighbors at precisely the same time every day, and every once in a while, the air would let out a little rumble as if to say, please, do something. When nothing happened, everybody would shrug their shoulders and return to normal. After all these years of stasis, it seemed that something had to happen.
Having not properly slept for nearly a week, I was fighting a similar battle against continuity, and maybe that is what gave me the knowledge that this uprising of change would not be an easy one.
For an hour, I rocked back and forth on the couch, waiting for my parents to realize the absolute direness of the situation. As far as I knew, we were in gravely deep trouble. Maybe our interruption of the town had inspired this radical changed — we had put more energy into the machine, ruined the consistency of it all.
The streets harnessed deep currents which made their way onto sidewalks, steps, and then porches. It was dark as midnight, the only light being a thick incandescent glow of streetlamps.
“It’ll end soon,” my father muttered.
It did not end. The sky shed its skin over and over with no mercy and no forgiveness. Soon enough, my father sauntered over to the window. His feet dragged on the carpet. Everybody must know that he was not concerned.
Seeing as the streets were forming into bodies of water, he began to show signs of concern. “Hey, Meredith? Do you think we could drive in this?” he said, head turned the other way. My mother walked up beside him. Shoulders tucked behind noisy Venetian blinds, they spoke in hushed voices. I crept up behind them, trying to catch a word. My heartbeat was all up in my throat as if this was some great moment of truth. We had to get out, I thought. This battle was not ours to fight.
I watched my mother turn around with big eyes.
“We think it might be best if we try and drive home tonight.” She turned her head back per instinct, checking if she had spoken in turn. I gave a nod, walked out to get my stuff.
Leaving Charlotte was difficult in a couple of ways. First, we were driving through the obscene amount of water flowing through the streets. I had never driven and did not understand the implications of this. On my part, this was all was a strange and untimely goodbye. Now, I felt my eyes sagging in shame, for it felt as if I was leaving my friend when she needed me most. In this epic battle between the Earth and the Sky and the Ocean and the Grocery Man, there was simply nothing I could do but return home.
As we drove up the last hill, I watched the ocean through the rearview mirror. My father shouted out inventive curse words while my mother stared down the road. The town was not all that different in this state — among such a godlike disturbance, the ground was in a strange state of peace.
Candy wrappers floated like fish in an aquarium while every light flickered dark. In a place of such compelling permanence, the lights would turn on and everything would likely return to normal. That night, the ocean and the sky had taken it upon themselves to win the town over, and for once, they had succeeded. I have not been in Charlotte since, so I cannot say if it has been demolished, abandoned, or returned to its absolute original state.
That night, we drove past the city limits and into vast farmland, and everything faded to a dark blue. The ocean waved me farewell, but I could not return it. I began to drift off to sleep, for it was all I could bring myself to do.