Always by your side
I could feel the tears rolling down my face; all the girls were sleeping, but I had already given up trying. The rain was pouring outside. I can never sleep when it rains. It brings me memories that I don’t remember experiencing in any of my 10 years of life. Arthur is not here, and he is usually here when it rains. I don’t know why I’m feeling like this, it hurts.
This scene, of the little girl sitting in her bed hugging her legs in the middle of a bunch of other girls sleeping, is heartbreaking. Arthur is there looking at her. He tries to reach her, but she can’t see or hear him, just like everyone else. Arthur hugs her without touching her skin, and with that, the girl feels a wave of peace taking over her body. Both of them stayed like that until the first light of day came through the window and illuminated the room.
As the sun began to shine, Dorothy entered the room ringing a bell to wake up the 50 girls who lived in that space. “You have 15 minutes until breakfast,” she shouted loudly, so all the kids could hear and have no excuse for being late. While looking at all the girls getting ready to leave, the plump woman noticed a specific bed where the person lying on it showed no initiative in getting up. “Charlotte!” she yelled, marching in the direction of that girl’s bed. In response, Dorothy received nothing but a brief gasp coming from the bedding.
Furiously, she pulled the girl by her ear, making her sit up. “You little rat! How dare you disrespect me? As a punishment for your willful behavior, you will not eat with the other girls this morning, because you’re going straight to Mrs. Bertha’s office. She will give you a proper correction without a doubt”, she affirmed. Charlotte didn’t even have a chance to defend herself, because as soon as she looked up, the matriarch was already heading towards the door. Dressing hurriedly, and with no other option, she followed her out the door towards the director's office. Silent giggles could be heard coming from all over the room, especially from a far corner where three girls, Helen, Ruth, and Doris, weren’t even trying to hide the cruel laughter that the scene had provoked in them.
The orphanage was at its darkest; the predominant colors were basically gray and red, which brought a somber appearance to the house where so many children lived. However, Charlotte knew nothing beyond those walls. She had lived there for her whole short life, although she had never felt at home or happy in that place on the outskirts of Paris.
The only moments of happiness for the innocent 10-year-old girl were when she was with Father Gabriel, the soft-spoken priest of the village and humorous teacher of all the girls in the orphanage. Also, when she had the company of her great friend Arthur, who only she was able to see, and with him it was as if a cloak of safety surrounded her. The other kids thought she was crazy because most of the time she was silently contemplating something or talking to what seemed to be an imaginary friend. This aspect of Charlotte’s personality frequently brought her face to face with the superiors, due to her poor concentration span and lack of proactivity.
After a brief walk, Charlotte found herself in front of the door of the headmaster’s office. She hesitated a while before knocking. In a momentary glance, the pretty young girl turned around and prepared to run away when she noticed him. Arthur was standing right by her side smiling at her, while shaking his head at the same time. A tear dropped from Charlotte’s eye just then, when seeing her dear friend. With a courage that she didn’t have before, she smiled back and proceeded to knock on the door.
An authoritarian tone invited her to enter, which she did, though still fearing what could come next. Without raising her head she was met with, “You again… What have you done now? You know what? It doesn’t matter. We will deal with that later. However, it is good that you’re here. I want you to go to the bakery in the village to buy a cake for Amelia’s birthday. Go now and make sure to be back for afternoon tea, and don’t you dare take any rides in these new motor cars. Those machines are not trustworthy, and I need this cake by half-past three.” Amelia was the oldest girl in the orphanage and today she was turning 18, which also meant that it would be her last day living in the institution. “Amelia is so lucky,” Charlotte mumbled to herself. “What did you say?” barked the headmaster. “No-nothing,” she stammered. “Get out of here before I get the ruler,” came a howled reply. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Bertha. I’ll go to the bakery right away.” With that, Charlotte scurried towards the door and closed it behind her.
Even though Charlotte didn’t like the circumstances that took her to the village, she liked the fact that the bakery gave her the perfect excuse to see him again. As soon as he saw Charlotte walking towards his uncle's little stone-based shop the excited boy rushed in her direction. “Lottie! I wasn’t expecting you today,” he uttered excitedly. “Me neither, Rafael.” “Oh come on... I’ve asked you a million times already to call me Ralph.” Charlotte smiled bemusedly at her friend’s comment. “I need a cake by twelve o’clock; can you make it for me?” “Really? Why? Are you already choosing the one that we are going to have at our wedding?” Ralph babbled with a huge smile on his face. “Haha, really funny,” she responded, with a sarcastic tone. “You know I’m right, Lottie. One day I’ll marry you, and take you away from that horrible place.” Ralph knew everything that Charlotte has been through all these years. He knew how much she suffered on the inside, and that’s why he tried to give her the hope of a better life. And Charlotte, even though too young to express her feelings, cared about Ralph very much. In fact, she denied to herself that she was able to see a future by his side.
Ralph took her hand and brought her inside as he started to prepare the cake while talking. “So, last night it rained a lot… Did you get enough sleep?”, the young baker asked. All this time, Charlotte was staring at her feet trying not to look at Ralph. “Just a little bit. Arthur didn’t show up last night,” she eventually revealed. Ralph didn’t understand Lottie’s relationship with Arthur (actually, no one has truly understood that). However, long ago, Ralph learned not to argue about this with her. “And what kind of trouble did you get in this time?” he added. Now looking at the window, she explained: “Nothing much. I just didn’t hear when Ms. Dorothy told us to wake up, and you know how she reacts”, Charlotte sighed. “That’s terrible; they are getting harsher and harsher every day. Let me take you out of that place.” Charlotte didn’t reply. By now, she had completely lost her focus and had a glazed look on her face. Ralph just continued making the cake, in silence.
At exactly twelve o’clock, Charlotte picked up the cake and walked out into the quiet street. As she left, Ralph had the sudden urge to run after her and whisper in her ear, “No matter what happens, I’m always here for you, Lottie,” before running back to the bakery. As she strolled along the narrow streets of Le Bourgneuf, Charlotte passed by Father Gabriel’s Church, and the things that he taught her came flooding back. “We are never alone, Charlotte, don’t ever forget this. If you don’t think that the orphanage is a home for you, you will always have a safe place in God’s arms. Death is not the end. It is just a journey that we make to a much more peaceful place.” “What are you thinking about, Charlotte?” Arthur inquired. The angelic figure of the man with blue eyes appeared right in front of Charlotte’s eyes. “Arthur! I’m so happy to see you. I’ve missed you all day.” “I was here all the time, even when you couldn’t see me. I never left you,” Arthur explained. When Charlotte was near Arthur she was a completely different person, devoid of fear and sadness; instead, only sheer peace remained.
Arthur walked with her all the way back to the orphanage as they talked. As they neared their destination, Charlotte suddenly heard a voice calling her name from an alley near the main gate. And once again Arthur was gone. Coming from the alley, Charlotte saw three silhouettes not much bigger than her own. When they came out from the shadows, she was able to identify their voices.
It was no other than Helen, Ruth, and Doris. As soon as Charlotte recognized them, her face tensioned in fear. These three girls had been responsible for most of the traumas that Charlotte had in her childhood. So, at that moment, seeing the three all together against the lonely Lottie, all she could feel was the desire to run away. Frozen with fear, she no longer felt any strength in her legs.
Laughing at the vulnerable state of the poor girl, Ruth and Doris grabbed her arms and pulled her towards the alley. Carefully, Helen grabbed the cake from her hands, while both of her accomplices were still holding the scared girl. “So, Charlotte, what are you doing with such a nice cake? A rat like you shouldn’t be carrying such nice things around.” “Helen, what should we do to her?” Ruth said, smirking. “I think we should teach her a lesson because clearly she doesn’t know her place,” Helen replied laughing. With that, Helen placed the cake on the ground,dragged Charlotte to the wall and started to slap her across the face while repeating awful things. She was totally helpless.
The three girls were definitely having fun while teaching Charlotte a lesson. When they got tired of beating up their victim, Doris glanced at the cake. “I have an idea!” She whispered something in her friends’ ears and both of them got really excited. Charlotte, who was crying compulsively, hugged her legs and tried to regain her balance, but it wasn’t working at all. Helen snatched the cake a second time and threw the whole thing on Doris's head, leaving the girl completely destroyed. “Charlotte, look what you did to her,” came a loud scream from Helen’s mouth. Lottie stared at her aggressors unable to stop sobbing. “Mrs. Bertha is going to be so angry with you,” Ruth jested. The three aggressive girls chuckled together and scraped off to the orphanage to inform Mrs. Bertha. At that moment, Charlotte could feel water droplets falling from the sky.
Charlotte, understanding what the girls wanted to do with her, became even more scared. She couldn’t go back. And she wouldn’t. So, with strength she didn’t know she had, she raised herself up from the ground and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, as far away from that place as possible. At that point, the rain became more torrential, and her stomach started hurting very badly. She vaguely remembered her last meal, 17 hours earlier, but knew she was weak with hunger. Dizziness overcame her, and by now it was getting darker and colder because of the incessant downpour. Charlotte couldn’t understand where she was anymore. Her head pounded, and all she wanted was to find Father Gabriel’s Church.
As the young girl who overslept that morning ran to safety, she started to hear the voices of Gabriel, Ralph, and Arthur, chanting one after another, “We are never alone, Charlotte; I will always be here for you, Lottie; even if you couldn’t see me, I was here.” But they weren’t there. They were gone. And she was alone running in a street that seemed to have no end. Her vision began to blur and her head started to spin, the temperature outside was colder than any other night before. Tired, hungry, and sad, Charlotte sat on the edge of the street crying, lost and forlorn, and fell asleep in the rain.
When she woke up, Charlotte was feeling light and peaceful. The sky was already dark but it wasn’t raining anymore, she could see the stars, and the cold was not bothering her anymore. Before her, stood Arthur with his hand outstretched, which had never happened before. “We’ve never touched each other,” she thought optimistically. She reached out to accept his hand and touched the skin of her friend for the first time in a long while. Lottie was truly happy. “I said I would never leave your side,” he twinkled. And, together they walked down to the end of the street.