“Hmph,” little Charlotte pouts, her pudgy arms crossed stubbornly across her chest as she ambles along the foggy meadow, kicking rocks and twigs as she goes. “I am smart!”
Emile, a boy in her class, pointed a skinny finger at her and laughed when she answered the teacher incorrectly during math lessons. “You’re dumb!” he had teased her, his collection of acute angles known as a face on most other people scrunched up in derision.
“I am not!” she had shouted. “I am brave! I raised my hand and I’m brave!”
Charlotte was sickeningly shy and it crippled her in nearly every aspect of childhood life. At school, she made no friends and her teachers chastised her regularly for her lack of participation. At church, she begged her mother to let her stay in “big girl” church, otherwise known as with the adults listening to the pastor’s sermon. Without fail, Mother would purse her lips disapprovingly and Charlotte would shuffle off to children’s church, dreading the onslaught of premeditated, formulaic ‘fun’ that, to her, felt like force-fed socialization.
“I’m a brave little toaster,” Charlotte whispers to herself, reciting the mantra provided by her father for times of perilous uncertainty.
She thought of her father as she picked up the pace, getting nervous as the sun continued to set, casting more shadow than light over the vast, fog-covered expanse. Her parents had sent her on a walk with her older brother, as they did every evening, down to the park to play with the other kids. By now, she and Oliver had worked out an agreement.
Since he had been a small child, Oliver had known that he wanted to be President one day. Sure, he didn’t know much about politics now, but he knew enough to realize that in that world, perception is reality. Now 13 years old, officially a teenager, he also understood that it was time to be ‘cool.’ He couldn’t possibly be ‘cool’ if his dorky sister was hanging around the gang, so their agreement suited him nicely. She got to go adventuring alone, effectively avoiding her parents’ intention of forcing her to make friends, while Oliver got to cultivate his image.
“I should tell Oliver that Emile was mean to me!” she gasped, momentarily encapsulated in her own genius, basking in the as-of-yet make-believe glory of Emile cowering under the fury of her protective older brother.
“Ouch!” she yelped, jolted out of her reverie by her throbbing toe, which she had apparently stubbed on the protruding root of an old tree. “Stupid tree,” she shouted, kicking at it and hopping up and down.
To Charlotte’s utter bewilderment, in one quick motion, the tree bent down from its already haphazard and half-fallen position, swooped her into its limbs and launched her into the sky.
“I’m not stupid!” the tree roared after her as she flew through the air, tumbling head over heel , too terrified to let her eyes focus on anything around her but too amazed at the fact that she was flying to close her eyes.
Doing yet another mid-air somersault, she realized with fear that she was headed for the ground.
This is gonna hurt, her eight year old mind warned her. Squeezing her eyes shut and covering her head with her arms, like she had learned how to do in the event of an earthquake, she held her breath and awaited the impact.
And waited, and waited, and waited…
The air rushing past her had cooled a bit and become damp. She took a deep, befuddled breath.
“I’m a brave little toaster,” her child mind chanted, and summoning what she thought had to be the last of her courage, Charlotte fearfully opened one eye.
There was nothing but darkness; nothing to see, feel, taste or hear but a void unlike anything the young girl had yet known. Seconds turned to minutes but felt much more like hours, and eventually, like days. If her eyes hadn’t been stinging with the pressure of the cool air against them, she might not have been able to tell that they were indeed open.
And then, there was a light. It was far away, but she realized it was literally the light at the end of the tunnel. Speeding closer and closer towards it, like a torpedo and no longer tumbling head over feet, fearfulness crept over her in a fresh, thick wave, causing her stomach to clench and churn fitfully.
I wonder where the puke will go if I barf?
It’s probably best to avoid that, she mused distractedly, blinking rapidly against the light that flew at her, closer and closer and closer.
She could smell the outside air, clean, dry, and thin. A collection of demanding voices thundered in unison over the roar of the wind in the tunnel. Any moment, she knew she would be tossed like a fly into that light and forced to face what sounded like a chanting crowd.
Squeezing her little eyes shut, she braced against the tendrils of light that had reached her tender skin and groaned, enveloped in it as the earth belched and shot her, yet again, into the sky.
“CHARLOTTEEEEE! CHARLOTTEEEEE,” the crowd bellowed in unison below her and terror gripped her in the most visceral way she had ever known.
Unable to prevent it, vomit spewed from her mouth, falling on what appeared to either be her worshippers or enemies – both incomprehensible to a child only eight years old – and onto her as she did yet another somersault.
Unintentionally Charlotte opened her eyes and below her was a vast sea of creatures, as if every animal from every zoo and every foreign land had been gathered right here to catch her.
And catch her, they did. Reaching into the sky, a great elephant plucked the little girl from the air and, cradling her in its tusks, licked her from head to toe.
Looking up, in disbelief, into the eyes of the beast that held her fast, she found not malice or hunger.
Charlotte, the little girl who was ever-fearful of her fellow man, had found a friend.