Charlie Kate Murphy was completely and utterly terrified.
At five years old—almost six, she reminded herself—she was entering the public school system for the first time. She had watched her older sister Kelly and brother David pass through these hallowed halls before her. But right now, clutching her mother’s hand as if she were being dropped off at a battlefield instead of bubbly and bright Room 201, she wasn’t so sure she was all that excited about going to kindergarten.
She had spent the better part of last night tossing and turning, her nightmares riddled with scenes of bullies and evil chocolate milk cartons and showing up to school in her underwear. As her mother edged them forward towards the threshold of the classroom, she stayed rooted in her spot. Her mother smiled, turned slowly on her toes, and knelt down in front of Charlie Kate. When they were eye level, Mom’s fingers brushed her rosy cheeks.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Linda Murphy began, her smile more forced than anything. After all, this was the last baby she would send through the doors of Countryside Elementary. She had a right to be at least a little melancholy. Charlie Kate stared determinedly down at her shoes, avoiding her mother’s gaze at all costs. If Mommy cried, she would cry, too.
“You’ll make friends in no time. There are plenty of little boys and girls in there who are just as nervous as you are. Why don’t you go in there and make a new friend?”
It was this moment that Charlie Kate feared the most. Not learning how to read, or braving the lunch line, or fumbling through adding and subtracting. No, she was already pretty good at all of that. She had, after all, watched her parents put two children through the learning ringer already. If anything, she was ahead of the other newbies. It was making friends that worried her the most.
Being the youngest of three, her childhood up until this point had been largely spent with her family, playing together in the yard, going on vacations, and watching the Red Sox. Naturally, David and Kelly were her best friends. Although she often played with the neighborhood kids, the comfort of her close-knit family coupled with her siblings’ overprotectiveness had shielded her into a little bubble of safety that was about to be popped. She had never had to make friends before. They were handed to her, just like the hand-me-down clothes that were once Kelly’s. But now, even with David and Kelly somewhere down the hall, she was about to be truly on her own for the first time.
“Charlie Kate.” Her mother’s soft voice shook her from the cat and mouse chase happening inside her head. Tentatively, she met her mother’s gaze, which mirrored her own tear-brimmed eyes. “Everything is going to be okay. I just know it. Kindergarten is where you go to meet your very best friends.”
“Promise?” Her voice, so small and trembling, almost broke Linda Murphy. But she knew that she had to be strong, if not for herself, for her daughter.
A smile finally tugged at the little girl’s lips, as she jutted her small finger out to meet her mother’s. As she linked them, Linda pulled her daughter’s forehead in for a kiss.
“Have so much fun, sweetie. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mommy.”
As she watched her daughter take a deep breath, Charlie
Kate’s tiny fists clutching the straps of her purple Jansport backpack, her honey-colored pigtails bouncing as she took the first steps into her future, Linda let out a breath. A few stray tears bounded off her smile on their way down.
“I can do this,” Charlie Kate muttered to herself.
She quickly found a cubby brandished with an ABC sticker that said “Charlotte Murphy,” tucked her things carefully away as all of the other children were doing, and pattered tentatively to a circular table filled with coloring sheets and buckets of Crayola crayons. A boy with a blonde bowl cut occupied one of the four chairs gathered around the table, scribbling sloppily and outside the lines. He reminded her of David. Safety. Not removing her eyes from the boy, she slid a coloring sheet to her spot, grabbed a purple crayon, and sat down.
“Hi, what’s your name?” she asked, beginning to add color to the dress of the little schoolgirl printed on the paper.
“I’m Charlie,” the boy responded, not bothering to remove his concentration from his picture. His brows were furrowed, and his bottom lip was pulled between his teeth as he continued scribbling.
“That’s my name, too!” Ecstatic, Charlie Kate’s eyes lit up for the first time since arriving in the strange new place.
But then, for the first time since she sat down, the boy stopped coloring.
“Well that’s stupid. Charlie’s a boy’s name.”
Her eyes fell to her picture, a distinct purple now wavering outside the lines.
“It’s just my nickname,” she began, breathy and nervous as sweat began to form on her brow. “My real name is Charlotte, but my daddy calls me Charlie Kate—”
“But you’re a girl. Your dad must be stupid if he gave you a boy name.”
She wanted to leave, wanted to pick up and find another table with a different child who wasn’t so rude. But she was frozen to the spot. Cheeks reddening by the second, she put her head down, concentrating now on salvaging the picture that she had begun. While she finished filling in the dress, and the tension slowly began to waver, she took deep breaths. A new student seated herself at the table then. She was wearing a purple dress, and her chocolate pigtails resembled Charlie Kate’s. There was hope yet.
“Hi,” the little girl began, waving a pudgy hand in the air.
“Don’t talk to her, she has a boy name,” Charlie interrupted, pointing his red crayon at Charlie Kate, his eyes passing threateningly between her and the new little girl.
Charlie Kate’s lip was quivering now, but true to her brother’s words that morning before he bounded down the hall to second grade, she wouldn’t cry.
“Kindergarten’s easy peasy, Charlie Kate. It’ll be okay. Just remember, nothing in kindergarten is worth crying about, okay? You’re smarter and tougher than all of those other kids. Be brave.”
As two other boys joined the table, gathering around the culprit of her taunts, she clenched her teeth, balled her hands into fists, and stomped off to another part of the still unfamiliar classroom.
At recess, she found herself alone on the playground, underneath the jungle gym, with her knees pulled up under her chin. Despite David’s advice earlier, as soon as she stepped foot outside, she let tears trickle down her cheeks. With her eyes focused on the ground to count the wood chips, a pair of light-up Power Ranger shoes blinked into her line of vision.
The shouts and laughter of the other children disappeared around her as she realized that the shoes were there for her. Her eyes followed the shoes upwards, running over a pair of jean shorts and a Red Sox t-shirt, before finally landing on the round face of a little boy whom she recognized from her classroom.
She wiped her eyes with the backs of her fists, noticing the way his head cocked and his eyebrows furrowed. She prepared herself for more taunting and teasing.
“Why are you sittin’ all by yourself?”
As she wiped the last stray tear from her cheek, the boy settled himself next to her, pulling his knees up to mimic her position in the wood chips. Before she could answer, he spoke again.
“I think Charlie Kate is a nice name,” he began. “I’m James.”
She found his eyes tentatively. After the cruelty of the morning, she didn’t want to be belittled twice before lunch.
Shrugging, she offered him a simple, “Thanks.” Then, after a beat, feigning indifference, she said, “My real name is Charlotte. Charlie Kate’s just a stupid nickname.”
She fumbled with her fingers, her gaze fixed on her knees
as she looked away from James. But as she picked at the purple nail polish that her mother had freshly applied the night before, his sweet voice suddenly perked at her ears again.
“I like Charlie Kate better.” The smile that he passed was a lopsided, goofy grin, creeping up the left side of his face. The warmth and sincerity lifted a weight that had been building on her shoulders since she had walked through the classroom doors that morning. She smiled back small at first, but her lips nearly reached her pigtails by the time James stood and outstretched his fingers towards her, saying, “Come on, you can play with me.”
She stood with him, their hands clasped together as they wound their way out from under the jungle gym. He broke into a run as soon as they were free.
“My dad just taught me how to pump by myself on the swings. I can teach you if you want!” he called over his shoulder.
Mounting a pair of swings, and watching as the little boy with chestnut hair demonstrated how to gather your momentum and pump your legs, Charlotte Katherine Murphy found herself laughing for the first time that day. And it certainly wouldn’t be her last.
Later that day, after her teacher had introduced the different centers to the class, Charlotte took up shop at a table that mirrored the one she found herself at earlier; it was covered in blank sheets of paper and had markers galore. She was hesitant at first, noticing the snickering eyes of the kids who had teased her earlier. It wasn’t until she felt James by her side that she felt confident enough to take a seat.
Her markers glided carefully across the page, reds and blues and browns and greens coming together as neatly as she could to form the body of the boy who was scribbling wildly to her right. Using her free hand to cover her gaze, she snuck glances at him, realizing quickly that he was so focused on his own drawing that he wouldn’t notice that she was drawing him.
In the end, her wobbly marker lines showed his mop of brown hair next to her bright yellow curly pigtails. She wasn’t so great at the trademarked Boston B that her brother practiced so diligently, so she settled for a red shirt with a blue baseball. After, she gave herself a purple dress and matching shoes, linking their peach hands in the middle. The top of the page read Charlie Kate and Jams Bst Frns in kindergartener style blocky handwriting, fit with backwards “e’s” to boot.
She carried the picture gingerly to her mailbox, sliding it carefully inside and triple checking that the picture stayed put before returning to the table.
As she took her seat next to James and slid a fresh piece of paper in front of her spot, James dropped his green marker dramatically to the table, beaming at his picture.
“What did you draw?” she asked, pausing her own marker above her paper to peer at his, that was nothing but a mess of green with random black lines and backward numbers.
“It’s the Green Monster. Duh. Hey, what’d you make? I didn’t get to see yours.”
Her cheeks blushed.
“Oh, I messed up. I threw it away. I started over.” “That’s cool. I’m gonna draw Fenway Park next!” She giggled as he picked up the green marker again,
indistinguishable blobs filling his page that was beginning to look, unsurprisingly, just like his previous picture. She settled her sights on drawing a butterfly, focusing on the symmetry as James colored to her right, and made occasional comments like Look at this, Charlie Kate, I put Troy O’Leary in the grass! and Your butterfly is pretty! Maybe you could give it a Red Sox jersey.
When it was time for pick-up, she made sure that her picture from earlier made its way safely into her take-home folder before she joined the car rider line. She smiled as James took her hand on their way out the door.
When they met their moms in front of the building, he dropped her hand to take his mother’s, turning to wave and offer her the half smile that she was growing so accustomed to. “Bye, Charlie Kate! See you tomorrow!”
When she got home, she made a beeline for the basement playroom, setting up shop at the craft table with a fresh piece of lined paper and a bucket of markers. The first day of kindergarten had a fictional tale brewing in her head all day, starring main characters James and Charlie Kate, with a bully to boot. Told in mostly pictures, Charlie Kate and James defeated the bully with the help of the Red Sox, and remained best friends forever and ever.
After stacking the papers neatly and in order, she adorned the edges with staples, sealing the picture from school at the top like a cover. Her grin was wide and growing as she flipped through her book, one of many that littered the Murphy household, each of them with By Charlie Kate Murphy written proudly at the bottom, just like David had taught her to do. This story, she decided, was her best yet.
It was then that her brother came bounding down the stairs, whipping his backpack at the couch and heading straight for the PlayStation. As the machine booted up, he joined his sister at the table, ruffling her hair as he bent down to her level.
“So, how was your first day of kindergarten, squirt?” had barely passed by his lips before his eyes caught the thick packet of papers she had been working on. “Hey, what’s that?”
Before she could answer, he snatched the book from her
grip and began mocking her pictures out loud. All of her hard work was suddenly reduced to belittlement by her big brother, who could really be a jerk sometimes.
“Oh man, Charlie Kate,” he chuckled, “do you love James?”
“No! David, give that back!”
She reached for her book, but he held it above his head, dangling it just out of reach no matter how high she jumped.
“Charlie Kate and Jaaaaames sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I- N-G.”
She was crying now, her face as red as a tomato as her small fingers curled into fists at her sides. Once the noise caught mom’s attention away from making dinner, David was scolded and her book was returned, and she fled to her room, clutching the now wrinkled paper to her chest. Though she diligently tried to flatten out the wrinkles, creases still remained. It was then that she made the promise to keep her stories inside of her head. No one else needed to read them after all.
“Lemon Sauce Productions. Ginny Edley’s line. Charlotte Murphy speaking. How may I direct your call?”
“You can direct my call to the receiver, because you’re already twenty minutes late, and I’m pretty sure your boss can hear my stomach growling from four stories up.”
Charlotte Murphy’s lips, pursed in annoyance not seconds prior, unfurled into a full grin. She shifted her desk phone between her shoulder and her ear as she finished filing the paperwork that was clutched between her fingers and reached for the brown paper bag that was tucked under her desk.
“I’ll be down in five minutes, Rango. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
She chuckled, imagining the tall, lanky man on the other end of the receiver reaching behind him to unfurl a wedgie. It was not so much imagined as it was pulled from her memories of that same man as a child, wrestling in the backyard with her brother, as David hoisted him into the air by his boxer shorts.
“It’s not my panties that are bunched, it’s my stomach! Now, hurry up. I’m starving!”
“Okay, okay! I’m coming, I’m coming!”
Grabbing her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk, she headed to the office elevator.
James grinned, that same sideways grin he’d had since boyhood, as he ended the phone call. The picture on his cell background caught his eye as he closed out of the phone app. He smiled at the image of a blonde woman cradled against his own chest, before a familiar scent of vanilla and lavender pulled him out of his thoughts.
He spotted her honey curls, already frizzing slightly in the Los Angeles heat, as she turned out the door and away from him. She was frazzled, head jerking this way and that, searching for him. Rather than flagging her down right away, he took a moment to relish in her airiness, loving the way that her brows knit together as she searched aimlessly for him. Once she began moving down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, he chuckled, pocketed his cell phone, and skipped to grab her elbow before she actually crossed the street without him.
When they reached the park, they found a comfortable spot in the grass. Hands reached into brown paper bags to pull out two almost identical sandwiches, each cut diagonally to form two triangles apiece. His fingers buzzed with the memory like they always did.
“I have peanut butter and jelly. What do you have?”
“Peanut butter and fluff,” Charlotte replied with a wide grin.
“Aww, man!” James’s sandwich plunged into his lap, his jealousy brewing a giggle in Charlotte’s throat. “Your momma’s so cool! My lunch is so boring.”
Plucking one of her sandwich halves from its plastic baggie, she thrust it towards him.
“Here, wanna trade? Then, we could both have both.” His floppy head perked up from where it had been
hanging, more so in forged contempt than anything else. With eyes bugged, he passed half of his own sandwich to her.
As they munched on matching sandwiches, the roofs of their mouths sticking together, James broke their contented silence.
“Hey Charlie Kate, why were you crying yesterday?”
“‘Cause.” She shrugged, her gaze dragging from her sandwich to her lap.
“‘Cause why?” he pressed. When she didn’t answer, he offered her a sideways glance, his eyes screaming I’ll get it out of you one way or another. Twenty-four hours of friendship, and he already wasn’t letting her get away with anything.
She let a beat pass, taking a deep breath as she gathered her words.
“My mommy told me that I would make lots of best friends in kindergarten. But then that mean boy made fun of me and I didn’t have any friends.”
James cocked his head, his eyebrows crinkling as he watched the pigtailed little girl drop her head and roll her shoulders forward in defeat.
“Charlie Kate, those other kids are stupid,” he began, the words trotting off his tongue as if they were facts and not opinions.
Her head perked up. She wasn’t allowed to say “stupid,” so hearing the only friend that she had use the word so freely made it seem real.
“First of all, that boy Charlie Cox was the naughtiest kid at summer camp. Nobody actually listens to him.” He waggled his eyebrows, watching his friend giggle in response. “Second of all, I don’t care if you have a boy name or a girl name.”
She was smiling now. Genuinely smiling.
“You’re nice, and you’re pretty, and if those other kids
don’t wanna play with you, forget about them. That’s what you’ve got me for.”
She sat up straighter, her smile reaching her pigtails. “I’m glad we’re friends, James.”
“God, I needed this.”
The park was buzzing with life: mothers pushed babies in buggies, joggers got in a quick afternoon workout, college students passed a frisbee around in a circle. Charlotte let out a huge sigh as she stretched out her legs, leaning back on her elbows as James passed half his sandwich to her like it was muscle memory.
“Boss already has you workin’ like a dog, huh?” he chuckled. She could only nod, peanut butter and fluff rendering her temporarily speechless.
“Kindergarten graduation was yesterday James. Yesterday. And yet, here I am, already back in the thick of it. It doesn’t end.”
She flopped backwards onto the grass in dramatic fashion as James wiped a smear of peanut butter from the corner of his lip with his thumb.
“So, the burning question of the afternoon then, Murph: why did you take the job again? You spend every summer complaining. So, quit!”
She rolled her eyes, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “I’m sorry that my glamorous day job of teaching kindergarten doesn’t allow me the luxuries of affording Los Angeles rent without having to work a second job over the summer.”
“So, move back in with me,” he replied with a shrug, his tone casual but serious as he popped a Frito into his mouth. “Just remember, I expect my underwear folded and my coffee ready to go by six on the dot.”
Charlotte sat up and rocked sideways, bumping their shoulders as she snorted.
“I complain because I can,” she sighed finally. “And
besides, Ginny isn’t that bad.”
“Not that bad? Need I remind you about the—not one,
but three—separate occasions in which she tried to jump me in the dorm showers? And that was just the first week of college.” She laughed at his misfortune, enjoying the cool breeze
and quiet summer ambience for a still moment.
“Seriously, though, Charlie Kate. You’ve gotta do what
makes you happy. I mean, why keep putting yourself through all of this misery when you could be, I don’t know, doing something better with your summers? Didn’t you drag me out here so we could spend all of our free time at the beach?”
She reached across the space between them to slap him in the chest, quirking an eyebrow as she retorted, “I dragged you out here? You’re full of shit.”
His expression said, I’ll win this argument if you keep pushing.
“I guess...yes, spending a ton of time in the sun was definitely a perk of moving out here but...I don’t know, James. We’re, like, real adults at this point. We had our fun. But we have to live in the real world and make big kid decisions now. At least one of us has to be responsible.”
“Now where’s the fun in that?” he chuckled, pushing his gangly body up off the grass. “Being a kid is what I do best!” Eyeing the vast park before him, he picked up a stray frisbee and tossed it to the throng of college students that awaited its return. As he nodded his head back at her, Charlotte picked herself up off the ground, the roll of her eyes contradicting the way her lips were pulling into a grin.
As they strode down the sidewalk, taking their time before returning to their respective offices, a thought gnawing in James’s head provoked him to return to their lunchtime conversation.
“Hey, so, seriously though. What gives? You’re working like a dog, and you’re clearly unhappy about it. Why not just get a different summer job? Or...I don’t know, move or something?”
“Are we really doing this again?” Her annoyance was partly playful but mostly true; she really didn’t want to dig up her skeletons, not when the sun was shining and the weekend was looming close.
“We, in fact, are,” he said bluntly. His feigned seriousness was an art that had been perfected from the time he was six years old.
But as he stared down at her, a full foot between the tops of their heads, she knew she wasn’t getting out of this one.
Her eyes found the bright blue sky as her head rolled back, an Ugh echoing in her throat. James laughed quietly when her footfalls became heavier, as if she were stomping like a petulant child. But the way that she carried her body, the manner in which her shoulders fell and her head lolled back into place and her chest heaved in a defeated sigh, told him that getting to the underlying cause of her frustration was going to take longer than one of their lunch break heart-to-hearts.
“I just...God, James, I look at you and all that you’ve accomplished, and then, I look at me, and...”
She trailed off as they approached a DO NOT CROSS light, her green eyes finding their resting spot at the less-than- white laces of her shoes, settled next to the shiny brown of her best friend’s Hugo Boss Oxfords.
In her silence, James took in the dejectedness of his best friend. As words failed, he brought his hand around her shoulder to give her a tight squeeze to his side as the orange hand transformed into the bright white of a walking figure.
“You know, Charlie Kate, just because I’m smiling on the outside doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows on the inside,” he began as they strode across faded white lines. “For all you know, my job could be eating me alive, my condo could be harboring a rat infestation, and I could have Vanessa bound and gagged in the back of my closet.”
“Don’t even pretend that you don’t absolutely love your life,” she challenged.
He rolled his head back, arms thrust upward, as he continued his argument.
“But that’s just it Charlie Kate: you’re basing your successes off of mine. People just...they don’t progress at the same pace.” He pondered for a beat, begging the clouds to give him answers in the remaining block and a half of their journey. “Don’t you remember when we were in the fourth grade and you got put in the blue reading group and I had to stay behind in the red reading group?”
It was a long shot, but at least she was giggling now.
“Well yes, but I don’t think my reading level being superior to yours when we were ten is the best comparison to you growing up and me sitting behind a shitty desk and going home to my cats for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, do not even talk like that. You don’t even like cats. You have nothing to worry about.” She sidled into him, barely moving him as her petite body bounced off his hip.
“You’ll be fine Charlie Kate, I promise,” he tried to reassure her, pulling her against his side forcefully. “Just give it some time. You’re in a rut. You just have to find your groove again. Think of it like a hitter’s slump. David Ortiz always got himself out of it, and when he did, he had everyone on their feet. It might take some time, but just be patient. It’ll all work out in the end.”
He pulled her into a tight embrace, mumbling the last of his sentence into the curls atop her head.
He turned his upper half to extend one more goodbye wave before making his way three blocks east to Apex Solutions, where his desk overlooked a beautiful courtyard, and he could play basketball on his downtime. As his feet beat the warm pavement, he mulled over their conversation.
James Ramsey really didn’t have many complaints about his life. He had a stable job in sales marketing that afforded him a nice condo in Los Angeles. A condo that he shared with the woman whom he’d spent the past two years of his life with.
But as he rode the elevator up to the seventeenth floor, his heart ached a little for his best friend of over two decades. She wasn’t happy. And in the Charlotte Murphy corner of his mind— the one that was larger than he sometimes cared to admit to—that made him unhappy, too.