One Red Shoe
by Byung Chil
Charlotte Walker didn’t hear him call her by his nickname for her. She was somewhere else. Maybe, ferrying souls across the river Styx.
Charlotte heard Michael this time. She put down the book she had been reading, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, turned to him and smiled shyly.
Her blue lipstick on her pale face suggested that she looked like one who ferries souls to Hades. But her hazel eyes were warm, alive and kind.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” explained Michael as he bent over to re-tie the laces on his red Converse high tops.
“I’ve been right here, silly. I always eat my lunch under the Bodhi tree. You know that!”
Tires squealed and a black car crunched with a sickening sound into a telephone pole next to the library. Charlotte and Michael watched in awe as the Honda folded around the pole.
“That’s Sophia’s Honda,” Charlotte whispered, disbelieving. Not knowing what to do, the two immediately ran over to help Sophia.
The scene they found was beyond their imagination. The windshield and driver’s window had blown out in a thousand shards. Sophia’s body had been flung through the windshield, slapped against the tree and thrown back onto the roof of the car. She lay still on her back. Her bloody face was unrecognizable.
Michael checked for a pulse but found none. Sophia was dead.
Without Michael saying a word, Charlotte burst into tears.
“She can’t be dead! She’s my only friend.”
Michael held Charlotte tightly as she spoke in his ear between her broken sobs.
“She had something important to tell me – just an hour ago she had left a voice mail saying that she had found my sister’s phone number.”
“The sister that ran away when you were 10,” Michael asked as a policeman told them to step back from the scene of the accident.
Paramedics inspected Sophia’s body, pronounced her dead, and covered her body with a blanket. The blanket lay over Sophia like a gloomy cloud hanging over a sad, desolate town.
“The sister that I hadn’t talked to since I was 10,” explained Charlotte as she sobbed.
“I wouldn’t talk to her because she abandoned us. She tried to keep in touch. She’d call when my father worked the night shift, but I wouldn’t talk to her. She’d try to stop me on my way to school and she’d hold out some candy and I would run away.”
“Why did she run away?” asked Michael.
“Because she was stupid,” shouted Charlotte.
“So why would you want to talk to her now,” whispered Michael.
“I need to know something. I need to know why she ran away.”
Michael turned and threw up. His lunch of instant noodles and gummy bears poured out across the asphalt, painting it with rainbows of grossness only Picasso could discern.
He didn’t want to tell Charlotte why he had been looking for her.
The police had phoned the office. Her mother had committed suicide an hour earlier. She had stepped off the sidewalk in front of a moving school bus. But she had left a letter for Charlotte in a brown grocery bag of fruit – a bag which she had put down just before she stepped in front of the bus.
Michael felt dizzy. It was too much. His stomach was in knots. Charlotte had a splitting headache.
He clumsily handed Charlotte a note with a name and phone number:
Officer Ray Kim
6336 4251 5151 4233
Then, Michael ran. He ran faster than he had ever run before and Charlotte watched him go – the way he ran reminding her of how her sister had run away that night she abandoned Charlotte.
The music was loud. Loud enough to control her. Men Without Hats’ song, Safety Dance, blasted on the speakers. A handsome, young man put two shot glasses in her hands for the third time and she slammed down the Exorcism – Polish Spirytus with one drop of pure Bulgarian lavender oil. 196 proof vodka. 50 bucks a shot.
Charlotte knew how to forget all of her problems, sorrows and loneliness.
Her new friend left and came back with two more shots, but this time he gestured for her to follow him to a dark corner. Charlotte followed. Two more shots and she’d be perfect.
Alone with her new, un-named friend, she slammed the Exorcisms as he kissed her neck and pushed her against the wall. She liked the physical attention but there was no connection. There never was. She felt like a mannequin. She was just there.
She just wanted to fuck him. Get off. Get through the stress. Go home and go to bed. She didn’t care who he was. What he dreamed about. She didn’t even know his name.
“I’m Philly” he said as he unzipped his pants, lifted her skirt up and pushed inside of her. She wasn’t wearing panties.
As he pumped her, Charlotte watched a guy take their abandoned table and slam a bottle of Grey Goose. He put the bottle down hard with a trembling hand and fell over. The stranger’s body shook in involuntary seizures as she convulsed in multiple orgasms.
The orgasms gave way to a splitting headache. That had never happened before. Not normal.
“Fuck,” she thought to herself.
She always had splitting headaches when people died.
She rudely pushed Philly away from her, lowered her skirt and then straightened her blouse.
“Let me take you home,” Philly offered.
“Your dick’s too small!” she shouted at him as she walked past him and out of the club.
“That’s not me,” Charlotte said out loud to herself as she walked down the street.
“This is not me. I’m not a bitch. This is not a solution and I’m not a sociopath…” she chastised herself.
“CHAR!” someone familiar yelled at her, stopping her train of self-pity thoughts to a halt.
A black Audi R8 stopped alongside the sidewalk and Michael leaned out of the passenger window.
“I’m sorry, Char. I’m so sorry I ran away this afternoon.” He paused to look at Charlotte but her glassy stare was enough for him to continue.
“I… I hated giving you that phone number. I didn’t want you to hear it from me. Because I don’t want to be the one that gives you bad news.”
The air was perfectly still as their stares at each other. It is as if the universe conspired to make this moment embedded in their memories – etched deeply like a mark on a stone.
Charlotte was the first to break the stare. Michael held it like a delicate flower.
“Fuck off,” Charlotte shouted back at him as she turned her back to him.
But Michael didn’t give up easily.
“I’m stupid like your sister. But I wonder if maybe she didn’t want to hurt you either.
Char, I’ll do anything if you can try to forgive me…”
He said it with conviction.
With that, Charlotte faced him. She held his glance as she looked back at him. But this time fear and helplessness shone in her eyes.
“Anything?” she asked again with the voice of an eight year old girl begging to let her out of a dark closet.
“Anything.” Michael confirmed with a hint of a smile in his lips.
Charlotte walked over to the car, opened the door and slid into the passenger seat.
Tears for Fears’ song, Shout, played on the car system.
“You’ve been drinking,” said Michael, matter-of-factly.
“Don’t,” Charlotte stopped him.
She reached up to the stereo and turned up the volume, put her head outside the window and shouted with all her might.
“Feeling better?” Michael asked when she sat back in the passenger seat.
“I didn’t do anything to deserve this,” Charlotte yelled at Michael.
“Huh?” he replied.
Pure confusion and anxiety resounded in his voice.
Michael didn’t know what Char was talking about.
Charlotte took a deep breath and repeated herself again in a whisper:
“I didn’t do anything to deserve this…”
The words reminded her of her mother. She had heard her mother whisper those words a thousand times like almost a mantra. Maybe, more often than that. Charlotte’s mother would say those words softly or sometimes barely audible as her father beat on her mother with angry fists, not stopping too as if being motivated by the incessant mantra of her mother.
Charlotte remembered her father’s eyes as she sits powerless in a corner, bright and burning with rage, as he beats on her mother. She remembered how his fists would rain down on her mother’s face as if the verbal abuse isn’t enough to break her.
Memories like that were why Charlotte couldn’t have a boyfriend or a husband. She just couldn’t trust a man. Her past was also the reason why she didn’t make friends at all. She was so ashamed that she had come from a broken place. A sad place. A violent world.
Charlotte remembered her older sister, Sarah, creeping up behind her father with a kitchen knife as he beat on their mother one night. It was on a honey moon. A Friday 13th.
She recalled how the knife gleamed with malice in her sister’s hands. How everything went in slow motion as she raises it behind her father’s back.
“What are you doing?!” Charlotte shouted at her sister who was shocked and taken aback by her pained voice.
Her father saw the knife and laughed with surprising joy and satisfaction. Sarah dropped the knife, ran out the door and never came back to the house again.
“Is there anybody in there?” asked Michael as the car sped across the highway and out of town.
Pink Floyd’s song, Comfortably Numb, was playing, but Charlotte didn’t hear him or the song.
“Char – I love you…”
The words cut through her. She didn’t know what to say. Or how to react. Michael was cute but not her type. Charlotte was attracted to assholes – not nice guys. The only thing remotely sexy about Michael was his car.
She said nothing. As if she didn’t hear him say it. Her silence tortured Michael. It felt like eternity, but he still pushed on.
“Char – I love you,” Michael repeated. This time he said it with more boldness and ambition in his voice.
“I don’t do love,” Charlotte finally replied to him.
“What does that mean?” asked Michael, baffled.
“I don’t do relationships.” She said flatly.
“Why?” asked Michael with a deep sadness in his eyes that she recognized. She saw that bottomless sadness in the mirror every night as she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed.
She saw herself in him.
She said this as she crossed her arms around her chest.
She turned to him and started to pour out her soul to Michael.
“Shit happened in my childhood, Michael. I can’t trust people – no one . People can’t be trusted. They hurt each other. People abandon each other. People punch and kick…”
She looked away and slowly shook her head.
Charlotte couldn’t believe she was saying this out loud. The only other person she had talked to like this was Sophia. But Sophia had felt the same way.
Sophia had been the first to confess to her that she believed a happy family is a lie. That love is a lie.
The cake is a lie.
A Bach Concerto for two violins came up on the play list. Was it a coincidence? It reminded Michael and Charlotte of high school rehearsals. They both had played the violin but that was something they did not know about each other.
“My father beat the hell out me,” Michael said in whispers.
“Because my mother cheated on him. Often.”
Michael paused. He had difficulty saying what he needed to tell her.
“That was their problem, Charlotte.
Michael paused again.
“The demons that consumed my mother and father do not consume me. I’m not going to beat the people that I love. I’m not going to cheat on my wife. The demons of my father and mother live in them – not me.
Me, I was washed. My heart and soul were set free. My cup has been filled…
I am born again, Char.”
He said all of it like it was the highest truth in the world. Like how one would say the sky is blue when there is nothing else they could want in the world.
“What does that mean, born again,” asked Charlotte.
Maybe, Michael understood. Charlotte wondered. Was it possible?
“It’s so simple, Char. It’s so simple and easy that it’s unbelievable.
Are you ready for this?
You just got to let go of the broken-ness. Because you don’t need to own broken things. No one does.”
Charlotte had no idea what Michael was talking about. The only thing she knew was that she wasn’t going to give herself to this guy. No matter how sweet his words were to her soul.
Sweet words were lies. That’s how Sophia explained it and Charlotte couldn’t have said it better herself.
Michael spoke again.
“Only when you are free, can you see. I can’t explain it so I’m not going to try. I can’t talk you into freedom. No one can do that. But I can show you what being free means. I can show you.
I can show you how fearless is my love for you…”
Michael pulled over to the emergency lane and brought the car to a stop. Charlotte slipped her hand into her hand bag and found her pepper spray and ripper knuckle-blade. She was ready for him.
He took the keys out of the ignition and gently handed them to her with a warm smile.
“The car is yours. I know you like it,” explained Michael as he got out of the R8 and shut the door behind him.
Charlotte just froze in her seat. She didn’t expect this. She wasn’t prepared for whatever was happening.
“My lawyer will give you the title. His name, address and phone number are in the glove compartment.”
Michael walked in front of the car and stopped on the side of the road about twenty feet away. He leaned against a speed limit sign and lit a cigarette.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte hollered from the window. Tears flowed from her eyes. She was confused.
Michael held her gaze once more in the eternity of that moment. Charlotte looked at him. She was confused. She felt so lost.
“The thing is that death will follow you wherever you go. I don’t know why. But it’s not going to stop until you let love come in. Until you know and live out love, anyone that loves you and wants to help you out of this sinister arrangement… they are going to die.
Like Sophia. Or Mr. Thomas from the office. Or your mother.”
Michael stopped. He was looking for words he couldn’t find. Then he let out a deep sigh and said two words that wrapped it up. Like a complete rotation of all the planets around the sun. A total circuit. It was a death sentence and a gift.
The words hit Charlotte in the stomach. She felt the world was like an airplane breaking apart just after take off. She cried uncontrollably.
“What the fuck are you talking about?!”
It was more of a plea than a question.
The faint light of two pairs of headlights shone on them from the distance.
Maybe, Michael was talking crazy. Charlotte slipped into the driver’s seat, started the car, and rolled forward to where Michael was standing.
“Get in,” she pleaded.
“My time is almost up,” he replied calmly.
Deep down, Charlotte admitted to herself that Michael was right about something. He had figured it out. Something that she never wanted to admit to herself. The names and faces of the dead were more than she could count. The names of her dark wardens, however, she could not escape: Death, Despair, Fear, Hate, Jealousy, Pride, Self-Deceit and Vengeance.
“Fuck it, get in!”
She said it between sobs with her head laid on the steering wheel like a prayer.
“Like I said, I love you…
That’s why I had to say what you had to hear. You had to hear it from someone that loves you.”
Michael paused to take a long drag on the cigarette.
“You know what that means and I’m ok with that. Because you deserve a chance, Charlotte. You were created to love, to be a light and to shine bright. To be heroic. To be amazing.”
“Shut the fuck up and get in!”
“And love, love is not just a word that we say to each other to confirm our connection or commitment. Love is something we do for each other.”
I was reading a blog post the other day and the guy said it perfectly. Love is about being a gift to each other. To love is to be a blessing unto each other. That’s when I understood your problem and what I had to do. It was a sudden realization. It was a spiritual gift.”
Michael spoke with confidence and warm enthusiasm.
He no longer looked to Charlotte’s begging eyes. His gaze went through her to some point of space and time ahead of him. It was waiting for him with a warm welcome.
“Fuck you, Michael. I don’t need this shit!” she yelled.
Michael smiled at Charlotte. He knew she had heard him. In time, she would understand everything that he had said tonight. But not just now. He was ok with that too.
Charlotte pressed on the gas and sped down the road. It was impulsive. She was on the edge of feeling something. She didn’t know how to handle it. It wasn’t just one thing. It was a lot of things. Fears, hopes, anger and-
Two cars sped past her in the opposite direction. College kids hung out the windows and cheered her with bottles of vodka.
She slowed down, turned the car around and went back to get Michael. In the distance, she could see the tail lights of the two cars zig zagging. She felt a lump in her throat.
Capital Cities’ song, Safe and Sound, played on the radio.
“Please let him be safe and sound,” she whispered. It was her first prayer ever.
When she got back to where the speed limit sign was, the broken sign lay on the ground and Michael’s right shoe lie beside it.
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About Byung Chil
19 year old Byung Chil reads Haruki Murakami novels, writes short stories, plays the violin, and rocks DOTA 2.
One Red Shoe is Byung Chil’s first short story.