Emotional Response

This is dedicated to my friend Michelle for her birthday today. Happy birthday!

Present day
Heartless. Cold. Inhuman. Monster. Charlie had heard it all before, but made no difference. There were jobs to be done and anyone failing to do their’s would be fired. Charlie’s job was to do make sure others shaped up or shipped out.

The man sitting across Charlie was close to tears. She tried to feel something for him – sorrow, pity, regret, anything – she really did but, as usual, nothing. Logically, this was the right thing to do for the company. Purge anyone who hinders the organization, like this guy. Sloppy, careless and often late to work, she’d given him many chances and warnings in the past. Now, Charlie had no choice but to fire him as he’d become a liability to the company.

“No, please! I’ve been working three jobs, which is only just enough to pay the bills and feed my family. I need this job,” he begged.

“But you’re not contributing. You keep making mistakes. It was tolerable when they were just small errors, but now you’re costing the company money instead of helping to make it,” she replied dispassionately. Charlie looked at his employee file on her desk and continued, “It says here you have three kids. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Did you think you were able to support a family this large with skills you had?”

“Well… My wife and I love kids and my youngest just… sort of happened,” he replied wearily.

“That just shows me that you lack foresight, make poor choices and you’re on a downward spiral that this company has no obligation to follow you into,” Charlie shot back. “You’ve become a liability and you’re showing no signs of improving. I’m sorry, we have to let you go.” Charlie snapped her employee file shut with an air of finality.

“You’re cruel,” he said.

“No. I’m efficient,” Charlie replied calmly.

Charlie got up and left the room, leaving the man in his misery. As she shut the door, she inhaled deeply, the tension in her head finally ebbing away.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Charlie lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. She listened to her parents argue, as they did on most nights. She was intelligent for her age and understood most of what was happening. She wondered when they were going to tell her.

In front of Charlie, they acted sweet and caring to each other and to her, but Charlie knew they had issues. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how she could help resolve them, and her parents would just brush her off each time she asked.

Her parents voices drifted up to her again. They got a little louder until finally, Charlie heard a door slam and there was silence. She liked the quietness. It was peaceful and calm. Charlie turned over in her bed and fell asleep.

* * * * * *

Present day
Back in her home office, Charlie sat down and opened her desk drawer. She picked up an employee file – the file of man she’d just fired earlier that day – and slotted it in the drawer, behind numerous other files. Files of people who had worked in the company, up until she’d paid them a visit. Charlie ran her finger over the files, remembering and relishing the memories that they brought back.

Charlie laid back in her chair and closed her eyes, enjoying the serenity of her sanctuary. She lived alone, ever since her father had passed away last year. She missed him, missed taking care of him. At least her life had purpose then.

Without opening her eyes, Charlie opened another drawer, smaller than the first, and reached into it. Her slender fingers found a little velvet box and she picked it up. Her eyes still closed, Charlie nudged open the box, revealing a beautiful, very old-looking ring. It had a silver band and had a large oval shaped gem set on top. She never wore the ring, preferring to keep it safe in her home than risk losing it.

After her father died, Charlie had inherited this ring. It was a family heirloom, passed down for many generations. Charlie was a pragmatist. Everything she owned was practical and up to date. If an item had outlived it’s purpose, she sold it, threw it away, or gave it to someone else. Charlie kept nothing of sentimental value to her. She looked at the ring.

Well, almost nothing.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Something was wrong. Charlie had yet to fully awaken, but she knew something was off. She opened her eyes.

Sunlight streamed into the window. Charlie could hear the bustling of traffic outside. She looked at the clock and saw she’d overslept by about an hour. She frowned, puzzled. Usually her mother would wake her up and get her ready for school. Charlie kicked off the blankets and went to investigate.

“Mum?” Charlie called as she padded to her parents’ bedroom and knocked on the door. There was no answer.

“Mummy?” Charlie called out again and knocked harder. She heard the bed springs groan as her mother got out of bed. The bedroom door opened and –

“Dad?” Charlie said, confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work? Where’s Mum?” Charlie peered around her father to look into the room, but her mother wasn’t in bed.

“She’s gone, kiddo,” her father told her sleepily and rubbed his face.

“Gone where?” Charlie asked. “She’s supposed to take me to school. When is she coming back?”

Charlie’s father scooped her up into his arms, took her inside the bedroom and sat her on the bed. He knelt down so he was at her eye level. Charlie saw that his eyes were red.

“Your mother’s gone. She left us. Last night. She’s not coming back.”

* * * * * *

Present day
The phone started ringing, breaking the tranquility. Charlie despised that machine, but she knew it was a necessity. She sighed, put down her fork and got up to answer it.

“Hello?” Charlie greeted.

“Charlotte?” a vaguely familiar female voice responded. Charlie froze. Nobody called her Charlotte. She’d been Charlie ever since her mother walked out on her and that name had finally died with her father.

“It’s Charlie,” she replied frostily. “Who is this?” she demanded.

“Charlotte, dear, don’t you recognize your own mother?”

Charlie remained silent. Part of her knew the caller was her mother, but the other part didn’t want to deal with it. She’d placed all her memories of her mother into a mental box and locked it far away in the darkest corner of her mind, never to be opened again.

“Charlotte?” her mother called out tentatively. “Just hear me out. Please. I know you’re there, dear, and I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. I’m sorry I left you and your father all those years ago. It’s just that, when I found out… well, I couldn’t bear it. I was weak.”

Charlie still hadn’t said a word, but she wasn’t angry. She felt nothing but emptiness inside her. Actually, she was a little curious now. What had her mother found out that caused her to abandon them? Charlie heard her mother sigh.

“The reason I’m calling is to talk about Dad. I know he died, but I only just read the letter he left for me. I couldn’t bear to open it until now and after reading it, I knew I had to find a way to contact you. I know this is a long shot, but would you meet me? Please? It’s about the ring he left you. You do have it, right?”

Charlie saw no point in denying she had it and now her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

“I’m not giving it to you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Charlie warned her.

“Oh no, dear, I don’t want it. You need it, but you don’t know what it does or why Dad only gave it to you now.”

“And I suppose you do?” Charlie asked, her interest now fully piqued.

“Yes. And I’ll tell you. I’ll show you. If you’ll meet up with me… Charlie.”

Charlie paused.

“Okay.”

* * * * * *

11 years ago
“Daddy,” Charlie nudged her father, who was sleeping on the sofa. “Dad, wake up.” Her father groaned and waved his hands at her.

“I made breakfast, Dad. C’mon, share pancakes with me,” Charlie wafted the smell of pancakes from the plate she was holding. Her father sniffed, opened his eyes and smiled at her. He sat up and moaned as the hangover hit him.

“Here, Dad, I made pancakes and scrambled eggs. They’ll help to absorb the alcohol. You’ve got that meeting thing today, don’t you?” Charlie’s father looked at his watch.

“Right, yes. Thanks kiddo,” he said appreciatively. Charlie helped her father off the sofa and onto a chair, where he started on his breakfast.

“Don’t eat so fast, Dad!” Charlie exclaimed, smacking him playfully on his arm. “Relax, I prepared your suit and the documents you need for your presentation already, so that you could sleep longer and wouldn’t have to rush. Your shoes and socks are at the door and I made sure that the car has a full tank.”

Charlie’s father slowed down and looked at her with admiration.

“You just think of everything, don’t you?”

“Of course. If you don’t do your job, we won’t have money. If we have no money, I don’t get to buy myself pretty things,” Charlie said airily. “I’m just looking out for myself.”

The two of them stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing together.

* * * * * *

Present day
“Charlotte! I mean, Charlie, dear. My, you’ve grown,” Charlie’s mother tried to hug her.

“That’s usually what happens when you don’t see someone for 15 years. They grow,” Charlie replied, holding her mother at arm’s length. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“You brought your father’s ring?”

Charlie nodded.

“Good. Before I tell you what it does, I need to tell you about your father and what kind of man he was.”

“I didn’t come here to hear you talk bad about Dad. He was a good man. Not perfect, but a better parent than you were,” Charlie glared at her mother. Charlie’s mother faltered.

“I guess I deserve that. I don’t disagree with you. He was a good man,” she said. “But what you didn’t know about him was that he was a psychopath. I didn’t find out until a few years after you were born. That’s when our fights started.”

“No, Dad wasn’t a murderer. I don’t believe it and I don’t think I want to hear anymore,” Charlie got up to leave.

“Charlotte – Charlie – wait! I never said he killed anyone. You misunderstand. Please, sit,” Charlie’s mother waited for her to sit back down. “A psychopath isn’t necessary a killer. A psychopath, by definition, is someone devoid of emotion. Someone like you.”

Charlie looked at her sharply. Charlie knew she was different, knew what she was and, over the years, she had learnt to conceal it and blend in with the social environment. Sometimes, her emptiness was useful, allowing her to make difficult choices based purely on logic, which made her perfect at her job.

“Your father told me when you were eleven years old. He knew what he was and he knew what you were. At first, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe I’d married one psychopath and given birth to another. We had many arguments over that. Do you know why I loved your father? It was because he seemed to know exactly what I needed, almost as if he could read my mind. He knew when I was sad or angry and always gave me the right thing to make me feel better, whether it was a hug, words of reassurance or ice cream. I always felt safe, well taken care of. Pampered, to an extent. I wondered what I did to deserve such a sensitive man.

Then one night he explained it to me. I’d questioned why, since he was a psychopath, he was able to empathize with me. Was it all fake? A trick he’d learned over the course of his life? Then he showed me his ring. The ring allowed him to feel the emotions of others, which was why he was able to tell what I was feeling with undeniable accuracy. He didn’t have emotions of his own, but the ring let him use the emotions of others. What I saw in him was always a reflection of myself.”

Charlie scoffed. “You think I believe in magic?” she asked. “There’s no such thing. Besides, if the ring helped him, why didn’t he tell me about it himself, or give it to me to use?”

“He was too reliant on it and he didn’t want you to be like him. He also believed he could raise you to live a normal life without the ring’s help. I… disagreed. I was scared. Living with two psychopaths under the same roof was too much for me, so I ran away. If you don’t believe me, put on the ring now.”

Charlie hesitated. All her life, she just wanted to be normal. What her mother was offering was too good to be true. On the other hand, there was no harm in proving her wrong. Charlie slipped the ring onto her index finger and looked at her mother expectantly.

“See? Nothi-” Charlie gasped as her mother grabbed her hand and held on tight. Waves of unfamiliar emotions washed over her. Guilt, regret, sorrow and a bit of fear crashed again and again in pulses through her body. Charlie snatched her hand back. When the connection broke, Charlie was aware that she had tears running down her face. She had never cried before.

Charlie’s mother looked at her and patiently waited for her to recover. Neither of them said a word, just staring at each other in silence. The silence calmed Charlie and, after a while, she reached out her hand to her mother, who reached out to her as well. Charlie braced herself.

Instead of a rush of her mother’s emotions, it had diminished to a steady flow. All the feelings were still there, but Charlie was now aware of one more. It was warm and soothing and safe.

For the first time in her life, Charlie actually felt her mother’s love.

-Jace

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