A passerby would think nothing of the girl on a swing; long hair sweeping the ground, toes pointing to the stars, as she swooped back and forth; if it weren’t well past midnight. The lone human pendulum slowed to a standstill in the creamy moonlight. The rusted red-and-white candy striped swingset stood between the farmhouse and a grove of citrus in bloom. On the manicured lawn between the house and the girl lay a stuffed backpack.
He said she should leave everything behind.
Charlotte stood, clenching the chains, a figurine frozen in the warm night. For this moment, time stood still. It was as if creation held its breath, watched, and then collectively exhaled. The fresh tangy breeze blew blond locks across her face and rattled the chains; she shuddered. Then ran. She darted toward her house, grabbed the bag, and then fled in the opposite direction. She refused to stop running until she reached the end of the dirt driveway. With one short glance over her shoulder, she adjusted the bag on her back, and headed toward their meeting place. It was time.
He said he would be waiting in the parking lot behind the football stadium. Last night her freshman Red Devils lost to the Tigers of Redwood High. Charlotte hadn’t watched the game. Instead she had searched the lot for his red Mustang and roamed the stands, hoping he had come early. Now hours later, her family asleep in their beds, Charlotte sat crouched inside the ticket booth waiting for her prince.
Robert was the image that woke her each morning, the motivation for each heartbeat. He wasn’t imaginary; he was her secret life. They met on a neighbor’s computer. Charlotte offered free babysitting in exchange for time with her best friend, confidant, and boyfriend. She felt sure her parents would never know; their ancient computer was just one step above an abacus. Her dad always said, “Smart phones and fast computers made people dumber; it was the devil’s plan.” Because of the devil’s schemes in fashion and fun, Charlotte was the school outcast. But now, she’ll be the talk of the town. It was her turn to shine.
A distant engine invaded her thoughts. Two beams of light searched the emptiness for her. She peeked above the counter as the sports car slowed to a stop, a man leapt out, with arms outstretched, declared, “Your savior, riding in a red horse, as promised.”
Charlotte gasped and giggled; it came out more like a snort.
“Well, come out here and let me see my princess.” He opened the creaking half door. For the first time, he was flesh and bone not dreams or digital images.
Robert flashed an approving smile, “Hmmm, you are a looker.” His eyes rested on her breasts. Charlotte crossed her arms; her budding body frightened her, and opened her to teasing. She waited for the usual, “Elsie, can I milk your udders?”
Instead, Robert opened the car door for her. “Come on Charli, let’s get going.”
He used her father’s pet name. He remembered. Charlotte’s right foot moved forward but the left ankle, twisted in a shoulder strap, held her firm. She stumbled into his arms.
“Hey, what’s this? I told you I’d take care of everything you’d need.”
Charlotte scooped up the bag and hugged it close to her chest. She took a step backward. “It’s only a change and my toothbrush.”
“Did you bring your phone?”
“Yeah, right. Like my dad would let me have a phone.”
Robert smiled. “Well, then. Let’s get on the road. We have a long drive.”