The Sugar Quill
Author: Allemande  Story: Charlotte's Choice  Chapter: 2 - Charlotte comes back
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Chapter 2 – Charlotte comes back

Chapter 2: Charlotte comes back



Although Charlotte’s departure had left a gaping hole in the children’s home, the spirit she had introduced reigned on. There were only three of us, again, but we set to work with such energy, one could have sworn that she was still there. It was true that we didn’t find as many foster parents as she had during her short time at the children’s home – it seemed none of us possessed her tactics of persuasion. But we certainly made the children’s home a comfortable place to live, and sent our children into the world with a good conscience. We even received a prize a few years later, for being the best children’s home in Britain – and although we all shared a profound dislike for the press, publicity was good for the morale, and for funds. In fact, this enabled us shortly afterwards to hire a fourth carer, Sarah, who was much more experienced and professional than either of us. Of course, she was also more cynical, but you get that.


Children grew up and left, new children arrived. New carers arrived and left, among them a very attractive man called Stefano, who returned to Italy after two years, taking Mark with him. Dorothy visited us about once a month, with an ever-growing Hermione, who was soon walking and talking and, with every word she said, actively confirming Dorothy’s prediction that she would be a scientist.


I was still in love with Steve. I had had no idea that I could love one man for so long... maybe it was the fact that it was unrequited that made it so durable? I often thought of something Charlotte had said to me, about two months into her time at the children’s home. She had told me how impressed she was with what we had built up, and added, "I don’t see how Steve could do without Mark and Dorothy. And I definitely don’t see how he could ever live without you,“ she had added, and burst into laughter at my stunned expression. I wasn’t so sure about that, but like many things, Charlotte had also improved this. I was a lot easier with Steve now, and I had the feeling that this loosened him up as well. Every now and then I thought I saw him steal a furtive look at me, and when I looked and smiled, he would quickly look away. But perhaps I imagined that.


Charlotte’s letters during her time abroad came up to a total of three. Every one of them came from a different country – Morocco, Germany, and even Vietnam. None of them told us exactly what she had been doing, although she alluded to having found more children like the ones she had seen in Colombia – whatever this meant. Instead of giving details, however, she liked to entertain us all with funny stories about the respective country’s people and culture. I wondered whether she was still as awkward with practical matters, but assumed that she must have learned to dress and to cook by now.


Eleven years had passed. It was another grey April evening when I was in the dining room, setting out the dishes and waiting for Dorothy. Since her daughter had gone off to a boarding school in Scotland, she came round much more often. I got the feeling that she was quite worried about this school of Hermione’s, but she had never told me which school exactly it was. In fact, she seemed quite evasive whenever I mentioned the subject, but I had no idea what that might mean. Maybe Hermione was at a school for the highly gifted – I wouldn’t have been surprised – and Dorothy was embarrassed by this for some reason?


If so, it would be quite silly of her, I thought, when I heard a knock at the door. Surprised that Dorothy came on time for once, I went to open it. But it wasn’t Dorothy.


"Charlotte!“ I exclaimed in astonishment.


"Hello you,“ she said, grinning, and hugged me. She looked very changed, and at the same time, still the same as always. Her hair was shorter and less curly, and her clothes were very fashionable and fitted perfectly; but her smile was the same.


"Come in, come in,“ I said, taking her arm and leading her into the dining room. "What a surprise! What brings you here? What have you been doing? How are you, dear?“ I realized suddenly that I wasn’t giving her time to reply, so I shut up.


Charlotte laughed. "I’m quite fine, thank you. How are you doing? And everyone else?“


After assuring her that I was very well indeed, I repeated my previous questions, and Charlotte laughed again. I had missed that free, honest laugh; although I noticed that she was overall slightly less cheerful. But then, that was to be expected.


"I see you’re not so easily distracted,“ she said, sitting down. "Well, where should I start?“


"Just tell me what you’ve been doing, and what your plans are,“ I said, grinning.


"‘Just’?“ she cocked an eyebrow at me. "Tell you what, I’ll help you prepare dinner, and then we can take a walk and I can tell you everything. The thing is, not everyone’s supposed to know.“


I raised my eyebrows. "They won’t be very happy to hear that."


Another one of those laughs. "All right, how about this... I’ll give them an abridged version at dinner, and I can fill you in later.“


"Why me?“ I asked. I hadn’t realized I had been that much of a confidante.


She suddenly grew serious. "Because I need you.“


Children started coming in at that moment and interrupted our conversation, so I tried to postpone my curiosity till later. Charlotte eyed them all interestedly, but – unsurprisingly – didn’t seem to find a familiar face. Then, however, George Lonston wheeled his chair into the room – and they both gasped.


"Charlotte!“ he said, in his pleasant baritone.


"George!“ She grinned, stood up and bent down to hug him. "My my, you’ve changed! You were, how old when we last saw each other? Five. So you must be sixteen by now.“ She stood back a little and eyed him. "You look good, my dear boy.“


George grinned, and I noticed with pleasure how much he had changed over the last decade. He had become much calmer, much more balanced, and much more at ease with his disability. We could really be proud of ourselves, I thought, but then shook my head at myself. No, we hadn’t done most of that – it had been George alone.


"What are you doing here?“ he asked, but Charlotte shook her head. "I’ll give a report at dinner if you don’t mind.“ He nodded.


There was another knock, and it did turn out to be Dorothy this time – twenty minutes late. How typical. She was equally surprised and pleased to see Charlotte, as were all the others who remembered her.


"Now, there’s no beating around the bush anymore,“ said George, putting his fork down. "Where have you been?“


We grinned a little sheepishly at his audacity, but Charlotte didn’t seem to think he was being rude. On the contrary, she seemed to think she owed us an explanation – and right enough she did.


"I’m afraid I can’t tell you much,“ she began. "Yes, yes, you can groan all you like, George. I’ve spent the past eleven years visiting several countries, trying to find children who all shared the same ... physical disability. Not all of these children are orphans, some of them live with their parents, but some of them have also been rejected by their parents because of their disability.“ Disgust clearly flitted across her face, and I remarked once more how much she had changed, as well. She had grown older, more mature... and more bitter. It was a sad sight.


"I’ve also been in endless negotiations with the government because I want to open up a school for these children.“ She sighed. "It hasn’t been easy, but we‘ve reached a basic agreement.“


"Oh, can we come there, too?“ asked Henrietta, who, as I knew, was very unhappy in her current class at the local comprehensive.


"No, Henrietta, I’m afraid not,“ said Charlotte sadly. "It’s only for the children who share this disability.“


"But what kind of disability is it?“ the girl asked.


Charlotte hesitated. "It’s a very complicated one that’s only been recently discovered, and that I can’t explain properly. I’d need a specialist to do that for you.“ She smiled. And there it was again! The feeling that she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Was this never going to stop? But then, I reminded myself, she had told me that I was going to know everything. I was growing more and more curious.


After another storm of seemingly endless questions, Charlotte finally managed to change the subject and asked us how we had all been. Steve then launched into a monologue about the last eleven years, but Charlotte didn’t seem to mind. She was listening interestedly, and looked very content at the children’s home’s development. And somehow, getting Charlotte’s approval of what we had been doing felt very good. How odd, since she was younger than all of us carers.


"So tell me, Dorothy, how is Hermione?“ she asked.


"She’s quite well, I think,“ Dorothy said. "She’s at a boarding school in Scotland now, and – well, she’s a very bright girl, so she’s learning lots.“


"Boarding school in Scotland,“ Charlotte repeated and looked at Dorothy with a queer expression, but didn’t ask any more.


Later, I was alone in the dining room with Charlotte and Dorothy. Steve had gone upstairs to get everyone to bed, and since he was an amazing storyteller, that was bound to take a while. Jonathan, who had replaced Mark as a carer two years ago, was upstairs listening as well, and Sarah was on holiday in Ireland.


We were sitting together in front of the fireplace. I burned to find out more, but I didn’t know whether I could broach the subject with Dorothy in the room. However, it was Charlotte – once more – who spoke first.


"I’m very glad you’re here,“ she said, addressing Dorothy. "Because I wanted to see you, obviously, but also for another reason. You see, Connie might not have believed what I’m going to tell her, but with you here, it might get easier.“


It’s hard to say who was looking more confused, Dorothy or me.  I certainly had no idea at all what Charlotte was talking about. Dorothy was frowning, but she was also wearing that wary look I always saw on her whenever the subject came to Hermione.


"So Hermione is at Hogwarts,“ Charlotte said, confirming my suspicion – although I didn’t know what she was talking about. If that was the school’s name, why did she know it?


Dorothy, however, gasped.


"You... you’re... one... as well?“


Charlotted grinned. "Of course I am. Didn’t you realize after Hermione got her letter? Didn’t it explain all my oddities?“


Dorothy suddenly laughed. "You’re right, of course! I should have known.“


"And I should have known that Hermione would be going to Hogwarts,“ said Charlotte, smiling, and I was suddenly reminded of the incident with the dummy. What was going on, I asked myself over and over, but was too fascinated to ask.


Dorothy nodded. "Yes, she’s very talented, it seems. She was devouring the books we got in that... alley... during all of last summer. She always learns her books off by heart, but it’s never scared me, you know.“


Charlotte laughed. "Oh, don’t let it scare you! We’re not what history has made us out to be, and with parents such as hers, how could Hermione ever use her abilities for other than good?“


I cleared my throat. Enough of this. Charlotte turned to me and smiled. "Sorry, Connie, this must all be really confusing for you.“


"You can say that again,“ I said. "Although I’m really looking forward to the explanation for your oddities, you know.“


Charlotte grinned. "Be careful what you wish for, my dear. All right then. Remember that incident with Hermione’s dummy?“


I nodded. "Yes, it seemed to fly back into her hand on its own. It was very odd.“


She smiled at me warmly. "You see, this is why I realized I needed you. I’ll bet you anything that everyone else has completely forgotten what happened that day, or attributed it to their imagination, or found a logical, scientifical explanation.“ She chuckled. "But you’re different – you have a critical mind, and an excellent memory.“


Not that I minded the praise, but I wondered where this was all leading. "So you have an explanation for that incident.“


"Yes.“ Charlotte paused. "The dummy flew back into Hermione’s hand because it was the most precious thing she possessed, and she was very scared to lose it.“


I frowned. This conversation was turning very odd indeed. "Not sure I get that.“


"Hermione made it fly back,“ Dorothy offered. "Magically. Because she’s a witch.“


For a full minute, I stared at them. I was expecting them to start laughing, to tell me that it was all a great joke and that I was really a very silly woman to fall for it. But something in their serious faces told me that they weren’t joking.


"She’s a – what?“


"A witch,“ said Charlotte quietly. "Like me.“


I almost choked on my wine. "Like – like you? Hang on a second there. You’re telling me there’s such a thing as... magic? That there are witches and wizards who fly around on broomsticks, say funny spells and change people into toads?“


Charlotte giggled. "Oh, I love these stereotypes. Well, personally I’ve never changed anyone into a toad, but yes, I’ve flown on a broomstick, and yes, I use Latin-based incantations.“


I shook my head slowly. Dorothy laid a hand on my arm. "It’s true, Connie. I didn’t want to believe it either, but when Hermione got that letter from Hogwarts – that’s their wizarding school – we went to get her spellbooks and all these other items with her, and I saw people everywhere performing magic. I also saw goblins and other beings.“


All I can say today is that I would never have believed anybody who came out with this sort of rubbish, had they not been two of my best friends whom I trusted very much.


"All right,“ I said faintly. "Suppose it’s true. Can you prove it to me, Charlotte?“


She nodded. "Yes, I thought that you might want to see proof, so I obtained a special permission to perform magic in front of Muggles.“


"Non-magic people,“ Dorothy prompted just as I opened my mouth. Charlotte then took out a slender wooden stick – a wand – pointed it at a chair, murmured something, and the chair turned into a live, breathing rabbit.


"Where’s the hat?“ I asked, stupidly, and they laughed.


"Yes, I thought you’d like a bit of traditional magic,“ Charlotte said. I was still shaking my head disbelievingly when the rabbit had turned into a chair again. But there was no way I could deny or forget what I had just seen. And as much as part of my brain was still trying to find a logical explanation, another part whispered that this did explain everything. This was why she was able to get so quickly from one place to another. This was why she had seemed so completely strange to our world at first. This was why she had often completed tasks much more quickly than I had thought possible.


"All right,“ I said, again. "So what do you need me for?“


"This school I’m going to open in September,“ she said. "It needs teachers.“


I laughed. It was a slightly crazed sound. "You want me to teach witches and wizards something?“ I was struck with a sudden inspiration. "How to cook, perhaps?“


Charlotted laughed. "Yes, that’s one part. You see, there’s a subject called Muggle Studies, which, as taught at Hogwarts, analyzes Muggle history and culture from a wizarding point of view. However, I want it to be slightly different at my school. Cooking and dressing in a non-magical way are only two of the things I want them to learn.“


"Why would wizards need to learn that?“ I asked, amazed. "I mean, it looks as though your world is completely hidden from ours... if we except a few centuries ago. Wizards don’t live among... Muggles, do they?“


"Oh, many of them do. And these children might never live in a wizarding community.“ Her smile faded.




"Well, you know what I said about their special disability earlier? That was all rubbish, of course. These children aren’t physically disabled.“ She sighed. "They’re victims of a life-long curse.“


I gulped. This was beginning to sound scary. How was she expecting me to cope with that kind of children? "Which means what in... Muggle terms?“


She gave a sort of half-smile. "The term is the same. Have you ever heard of werewolves?“


This time I really choked on my wine, and Charlotte slapped me hard on the back. "I assume you have,“ she commented dryly.


"Werewolves?“ I said. "But they’re not... human... are they?“


Charlotte grimaced. "Well, yes, that’s what wizards would have fed to Muggles. And that’s also what wizards generally feed to their children, which is why werewolves are actively feared in the wizarding world. And this is why many of these children live in horrible situations.“


"But Charlotte... are you sure they’re safe?“ I wasn’t doubting her trustworthiness, more her sense of judgment at this moment.


She gave a short laugh. "Of course I’m sure. They’re as human as you and me. They just turn into a wolf once a month.“


I shook my head. I couldn’t believe she was talking about that so casually. But then, I reminded myself, she had seen a lot more than I had in that respect.


"And what happens then?“ asked Dorothy, who sounded similarly frightened. It seemed Hermione hadn’t told her, or didn’t know about werewolves yet.


"Then,“ said Charlotte, leaning back, "they turn into beasts, incapable of human thought. Which is why we will need security measures.“


I was obviously looking very alarmed, for she laid a hand on my arm and said soothingly, "Look, Connie, I’d just like you to come and have a look at the children to convince yourself that they’re as normal as you and me. I’d only need you there one or two days a week, and you wouldn’t be there for full moons. Trust me, they’re completely safe in between.“


For a while, none of us said anything. Then Dorothy cleared her throat. "So you’ve been spending the last eleven years,“ she said, "roaming around the world looking for werewolves?“


"Yes,“ said Charlotte.


"And you want to open a school to teach them magic,“ I added.


"I believe that’s what I said,“ said Charlotte, her eyes twinkling.


"You’re completely off your trolley, you know that, right?“ I said, and Charlotte burst out laughing.


"So will you help me? I wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t seen that the children’s home is going so well. I’m sure they could spare you for a day or two.“ She grinned. "Although one person might not agree.“


"Oh, shut up,“ I said and grinned back. "Yes, of course I’ll help you.“

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