Chapter Thirteen: My Best Friends.
Charles lay in his bed, looking at the ceiling. He'd been allowed to return to his apartment, provided he stayed in bed and alerted the caretakers immediately if something went wrong.
He felt lonely and angry. Charlie hadn't needed training, it was only a ruse to keep his grand-father out of the way. The insult stung.
Charles could have turned on the TV. He could have read the twenty or so books that the twins had brought him. But he couldn't bring himself to even lift his head.
He WAS getting old. He'd just had a heart-attack, for pete's sake. His hips were constantly locking up and his reaction time was much slower than he had once been.
His thoughts turned to the past. Joe, Tim and him. They were unstoppable in their day.
“You're certain this is going to work?” Joe looked doubtfully at the go-cart, which Tim was 100% certain was going to work.
“Yup.” Tim grinned back.
“And you're going to beat those punks on the other side of town?”
“With no injuries?”
“And the cart left in one piece?”
“Even though Pleasant Gorge is full of dangerous turns and covered with rocks?”
“Finish that sentence and I'll deck you.”
Charles laughed. “You're just jealous Joey.”
“No, I'm not. I just disapprove of using the Improbability Clause for every little thing that comes up out of the woodwork!” Joe fired back.
“Yup, jealous.” Charles continued to laugh.
The three boys had been challenged by another group of boys on the other side of the city to a go-cart race. It was the school holidays and the perfect time for young boys just in their teens to start causing mischief.
“This beauty will have no trouble getting down that hill.” Tim bragged. “And she'll have no problem beating Davis, Bull and Pitt.”
“This beauty” was made of old plywood and tape, with some old baby carriage wheels to finish it off.
“We're doomed.” Joe buried his face in his hands, his long hair falling around his face. As the oldest, Joe was usually the most level-headed and often kept the other two out of trouble. Tim was next, and was always IN trouble. Charlie was the littlest, and tagged along with whatever Tim wanted to do.
“You're such a spoilsport Joey.” Tim poked his best friend in the ribs. “We'll be fine!”
“Besides, the girls will be there watching!” Charles piped up, earning him laughs from the older two.
“Charles got a girlfriend has he?” Joe ruffled his friends hair.
“No!” Charles shoved him back.
“Well, I will by the end of the week. I reckon Denise likes me.” Tim smirked, proud of himself.
“Denise Fairweather? No way.” Charles frowned. “You're too fat!”
“Yeah, Tubby!” Joe gave Tim a good push. “You need to stop eating for a month, then you might have a chance!”
“Yeah, and you need to eat for a month and you might have a chance with Delilah.” Tim said slyly.
“You know that's an arranged marriage! I have no choice!” Joe groaned.
“You like her.”
“The only thing stronger than your love for Delilah is your jealousy of the Improbability Clause.”
“GET BACK HERE YOU LITTLE RUNT!”
Charles roared with laughter as Joe tore after Tim, who ran off laughing.
The kids from the other side of the city had a beautiful new store-bought cart that looked stunning. It's metal exterior gleamed and the paintwork was exquisite.
Joe looked doubtfully at Tims cart. The thing looked perilously close to breaking apart, the tape looked ready to rip at a moments notice.
“Look at THAT! No way is that even going to make it to the finish line!” Bull laughed.
“She will too!” Tim fought back.
“Oh please, it's barely holding together as it is!” Pitt jeered.
“One weeks pocket money says otherwise!”
“Hang on-,” Joe tried to intervene. He really didn't want to give up a weeks pocket money, especially when he was so close to finishing his model plane collection!
“Too late! Unless you're a wussy.” Bull teased. The others started chanting “Wussy!” until Joe gave up.
Four of the boys piled into the two carts, with Joe and Davis ready to push the carts down the steep slope that had been the bank of Lake Pleasant until it had been drained.
“On your mark…get set…” The weaselly, pimply Mitch from their class got ready to start the race. No one particularly liked him, but he was good for little things like this. “GO!”
Both boys pushed as hard as they could before jumping into the back of the carts. The two small vehicles tore down the slope.
“WATCH OUT!” Yelped Joe as the poorly-constructed cart rattled over a large rock. The other cart had dodged it, costing the driver a bit of time.
“Faster Bull!” Davis protested.
“I'm trying!” Bull roared back, dodging another bush that the other three boys had simply gone through.
Joe had never been so terrified in his life. The sides of the cart were starting to fall off, and he grabbed them tightly to keep them from flying away. Charles was whooping with joy and Tim was fully focused on steering the contraption…or at least pretending to, he hadn't thought about the actual steering side of things.
The end was in sight, and the newer, shinier cart was barely in front.
“LOOK OUT FOR THOSE LOGS!” Screamed Joe. Precision steering was needed to get between those two logs…and there was none.
“LEAN RIGHT!” Tim yelled back. The three boys leaned right. It was too late, Joe only just being able to grab Charles and pull him back before the cart smacked into the side of one of the logs and went spinning towards the finish line, the other cart barely avoiding getting hit.
Joe grimaced. Charles had nearly had his face scraped off by the sharp sticks that pointed out of the logs. The cart finally landed at the finish line, to the cheers of the other children who had come to watch.
“YOU DID IT TIM!” Denise yelled with joy. “YOU WON!”
“How in the-?!” Bull, Pitt and Davis pulled up behind the three winners as the cart completely fell apart.
“You were too scared to get your cart damaged.” Tim pointed out.
“I CALL IMPROPER USE OF THE IMPROBABILITY CLAUSE!” Joe roared furiously. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain in face. He grabbed his eye, and was rewarded with the sight of his own blood.
A nice big cut had opened up over his eye. Thankfully the eye itself hadn't been damaged, but stitches were going to be needed.
“Are you okay Joey?!” Delilah ran over to help her friend. “Come on, we need to get you home!”
“Cripes, sorry Joey. Didn't mean for you to get hurt.” Tim looked at Joe, scared. “You haven't lost your eye have you?”
“NO. My dignity yes, but the rest of me is fine thank you!” Joe walked off with Delilah. Tim and Charles followed, feeling a bit sheepish.
“Maybe helmets next time?” Charles suggested.
“NO NEXT TIME!” Joe yelped.
Two tears fell from the eyes of the old man lying helpless in his bed. No longer racing go-carts down Pleasant Gorge, no longer fighting wars.
He felt useless. Impotent. Alone.
Charles reached over and grabbed the remote. He flicked aimlessly through the channels.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” He croaked. In walked Joe Masters, the old scar from the cart-race joined by two others. It made Joe look far older than he really was.
“Hard to believe you're older than me.” Charles smiled wryly.
“What does that matter?” Joe asked.
“One of those scars should be mine.” Charles said.
“Again, that doesn't matter. You have nothing to prove Charles.” Joe said sternly. “You're my friend.”
“If it wasn't you protecting me, it was Timmy.” Charles coughed.
“You did your fair share too. How many times did you stop Tim and I from killing each other?” Joe helped the other man sit up so he could have some water.
“When did we get old Joey? When did we stop mattering?” Charles sipped his water slowly.
“We still matter mate. We're still relevant. We're still loved.” Joe took the cup as Charles lay back down. “You shouldn't have been so upset with Charlie. He got a great deal out of your training.”
“It was a ruse.” Charles said.
“Because he loves you. He wants to protect you. He also wants to learn from you. He can't do that if you get yourself killed.” Joe tried to reason with his old friend.
Charles lay back. “I can't stop Joey. I need to be out there. I need to be doing SOMETHING!”
Joe sighed. Charles was never going to stop, that was true. He had always been ready to sign up to whatever stupid plan Tim had going. He was always the first to volunteer for a dangerous mission when they'd been at war. He'd scoffed at anyone who hung back. He was prepared to do anything. Any dare, any favour, anything to make himself noticed.
“You were always the oldest. You were the one who always protected us. Tim always had the ideas. And I was the lackey who followed along, because you two were the most awe-inspiring kids in the neighbourhood. Everyone wanted to be you guys. And you didn't mind that I tagged along. You made me your friend.” Charles coughed loudly again, prompting Joe to refill the water glass.
Joe watched helplessly as the younger mans coughing fit got worse. He reached up to push the red button that would call for help, but Charles stopped him.
“No, it's alright, I'm fine.” Charles coughed out, clearly NOT fine. Joe continued to pushing the button. “NO! Don't push that! I'm fine! I'm fine!” Charles coughing fit soon stopped him from talking. Joe pushed the button, and within five minutes a nurse had arrived to take care of the situation.
The glare that followed Joe out of the room would haunt him for the rest of his days.