A HALO FOR CHARLIE MAC
In a short story that occurs after the action in Broken Mercies but before its epilogue, Charlie Mac surprises Danny’s sister. Here Kate (soon to be featured in my women’s fiction novel) tells us how her brother’s former lover offers an intriguing proposition.
I placed another ornament on the tree. Blissfully alone while my teenage daughter baked cookies with her stepmom, I was free to caterwaul along with the carols playing on the speaker. The doorbell pealed.
I stopped mid-yowl. “Well, shoot.” I looked down on myself. I hadn’t showered after exercising. I turned down the speaker and tugged my damp, oversize T-shirt to make sure my hips were adequately covered, and then I peered through the peep hole.
My brain clanked to a stop. No way. A world-famous country singer was not standing on my porch in San Jose. Wearing a Santa hat.
I fumbled open the door an inch. Deliciously cool night air rushed past me. “Charlie Mac?”
The outdoor Christmas lights splotched color on the face loved by zillions. The white-rimmed hat was placed with care to show off his trademark hair dyed a dozen shades of brown. A plaid flannel shirt hung over jeans and rough boots that probably cost more than her car. “Howdy, Katie!”
My brain jerked back into gear, and I scowled. “It’s Kate. Only my brother uses that nickname.” Well, one other man called me Katie, but I was done wasting mental energy on him.
Charlie Mac’s smile faltered. Then he re-powered his star-dazzle grin, its wattage flaring brighter than the Christmas lights. “Okay Kate, how are you?”
“Good, thanks. Please come in.” I’d never met my brother’s ex-boyfriend and occasional pain-in-the-butt music partner, but I was well accustomed to faking composure in strained circumstances. I gestured him inside like I entertained mega-stars every other day.
He entered my tiny home, and the living room shrank to doll-size around his frame. I looked up to meet his gaze—way up—and stepped away to avoid toppling backward.
He flicked a doubtful glance over my sweaty hair and apparel. “Caught you at a bad time?”
“On the contrary. I’m all dressed up for a Christmas party,” I snapped, and concentrated on not re-adjusting my shirt around my hips. He looked confused. Shame darted through me. Last week’s kiss—from the man I would never think about again—must have upset me more than I realized. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually nasty. Have a seat.”
“Thank you, ma-am.” He dwarfed my love seat and placed the red paper accordion file he’d been holding on his lap. He shifted, and a lone drop of sweat slid down his temple.
His uneasiness jangled my antennae. What could be making him nervous? My brother had confided Charlie Mac suffered with bipolar disorder, like several members of our family. Add those symptoms to the self-centered focus of a huge musical star, and he usually bulldozed over others to get what he wanted without regard to crushed feelings. Something had to be bothering him. A thought shot fear through me. “Is something wrong with Danny?” I said in a sharp voice.
He shook his head. “Not at all. I haven’t seen your brother in a while, but I haven’t heard of any trouble.” He set the red file on the table and gave it a little pat.
Mystified, I sat on the matching chair jammed at a close angle to the sofa. “What brings you here?”
He cleared his throat. “Uh, you offered coffee?”
He was delaying, but I went along with it. “Of course.” I jumped to my feet and returned with a full Christmas mug. “Sugar? Cream?”
“Nah.” He sipped and winced. “Maybe cream?”
“Sorry. I only drink decaf. I’ll make a fresh pot of real coffee if you like.”
He consulted his watch. “Just the cream, please.”
I grabbed the carton of half & half and returned to my chair.
He poured the cream, took a sip, gave a small shudder, and set the mug down with care. Then he pulled papers out of the accordion file. “I have a proposition.”
My eyebrows climbed my forehead. “Ya?”
He grimaced. “That Minnesota accent. You sound like your brother.”
“Well, of course.”
“Now, listen,” he said, assuming a more natural arrogance. “Daniel told me about your daughter’s special ed situation, and I have a good project here for her school district.”
My mental gears ground, finding no plausible reason for him to care about my daughter’s education. “What are you talking about?”
“I’d like my charitable foundation to hire special education aides for your school district’s classrooms.”
I regarded him politely, blinking in slow motion.
He quirked his eyebrows. “Katie darlin’, you doin’ all right there? You just went a little light in the complexion.”
“Aides?” I said faintly. He made no sense.
He leaned forward. Lines deepened around his suddenly hollow eyes. “You know what happened to me last summer, and why it happened, right?”
The tragedy, like far too many others of late, had originated with someone who refused to treat his mental illness. “I’m very sorry, Charlie.”
“I never knew the reason for the condition that ran through my family until your brother educated me. Then I realized I’d passed on that condition to one of my two boys.” He firmed his mouth but couldn’t hide the hurt so familiar to me.
Empathy squeezed my chest. “I don’t believe there’s anything more painful than watching our children suffer.”
He sighed and leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped. “I married because I wanted kids. I was honest with their mama about being in the closet, but it was better to divorce.” His fingers whitened. “I’m not a good daddy.”
The trust this powerful man extended gave me a clue how he’d snagged my brother’s love. “I don’t have bipolar myself,” I said, “but it shreds me to see my flaws affect my daughter. Charlie, you need to remember it’s impossible to be perfect for our kids, especially when we had a hard time growing up ourselves.”
He looked away. “Freaky as all hell to see Danny Boy’s pretty eyes in your face.”
Another deflection. He couldn’t bear such direct focus. My throat tightened. As with my mom and daughter, innocence quaked at the center of his disorder that unbalanced everyone around him. I was certain he didn’t understand why compassion made him feel worse. I put my brain back on Coping Mechanism, an applied thinking pattern that helped me act in a way my daughter needed. “Don’t use that nickname,” I ordered in a hard tone. “Danny hates it.”
Sure enough, Charlie Mac straightened his spine, and his face pinched with annoyance. “Well, tough shi—er, nuggets. He used to love when I called him that.” His focus turned inward. Heat glazed his eyes as an obviously private moment ran through his mind.
“Hey!” Skin crawling, I made a time-out gesture. “This is my brother we’re talking about!”
“Er, right.” Charlie Mac gave himself a rough shake and pulled the red file closer. “Now, pay attention, little lady, because this here’s a good idea. You want to help special needs students, right? Teachers ought to be able to do more than corral behavior. There has to be some real learning going on, so we’ll get more aides in the classrooms, even a few one-on-ones here and there.”
I gaped at him. “One-on-one aides.” A fantasy, like unicorns, only rarer.
The famous Charlie Mac grin blazed, and his deep chuckle rumbled down my spine. “Surprised?”
The chuckle rumbled again, and a sharp yearning to hear another man’s special laugh hit me with a pang. I shoved the feeling away. That was a man I could not have. “Charlie, why do you want to start your project here?”
He spread the papers over the table. “My ex-wife figured out what my son needs by way of special education, but we want to keep public focus away from him in Tennessee. Since you’re Danny Bo—er, that is, Daniel’s sister, I know about the book you wrote. Love’s True Cost will publicize the project because it helps people understand what causes special needs.” He put on another smile. “Your book hits the heart but good, little girl. Nice work.”
Undazzled, I said, “Plus you want Danny’s attention.”
The smile was replaced by a glare that probably intimidated most everyone on the planet, and then a snort burst out of him. “You don’t scare easy. If I didn’t know you’re several years younger than Daniel, I’d swear you were twins.”
I clamped my lips against the charisma radiating from him like a heat lamp and craved the quieter appeal of… no one. I didn’t want that other man. Really.
“Anyhow, I’m going to lasso more musicians to join the foundation, because let’s face it, the right kind of governmental education changes won’t be made any time soon. This is a pilot program, and if it works, we’ll get it into other districts. We’ll catch more kids before their frustration grows into violence.” He paused and frowned. “Stop that.”
With a put-upon sigh, he stood and looked around, found the bathroom, and came back with a box of tissues.
Oh. “Thanks.” I blew my nose. I never cried for bad reasons, but the really good reasons rarely failed to nail me.
“Shoot, your hazel eyes turn greener just like Daniel’s when he’s upset.” He touched my hair. “And this is the same shiny brown with red highlights.”
I jerked my head and narrowed said green-brown eyes.
His lips curved in a small, genuine smile, and I liked him much better without the star persona. He sat and pushed the file toward me. “Why don’t you look over these papers and see what you can do to help?”
“I couldn’t possibly. I’m too mixed up right now.” In near-complete shock, I wouldn’t be able to decipher the words.
Charlie Mac considered me and then nodded as if my appearance confirmed my statement. “All right. If I send my charity guy, you’ll work with him?”
“Ya.” How could I not?
“You don’t mind publicizing your book?”
Really? “Publicity wouldn’t hurt my feelings. Did you read the novel?”
“Er, I tried a few years ago.” His left eye twitched. “I thought it might help me figure out how to keep Danny Boy.”
Quite an admission for his big ego. “My novel pulls no punches about mental illness. Must’ve been tough reading for you.” I’d been explicit about what happens to kids when sick parents ignored their own symptoms, and Danny had been tortured by Charlie Mac’s unwillingness to treat his bipolar disorder.
Yet I sensed no feverish energy bubbling beneath Charlie’s surface. At some point, he’d surrendered to treatment.
“Your book didn’t help me. Somehow I just couldn’t be enough for Daniel,” he said with no self-pity.
His honesty earned my respect. “Don’t worry. You just weren’t meant for each other.” I waved at the papers. “You certainly have a good heart.”
“Not good enough for your brother.”
Sometimes reality had to be acknowledged. “Well, the sleeping around kind of bothered him.”
Guilt looked foreign on Charlie Mac’s face. “I couldn’t… I can’t seem to… Well, even when I take the meds… um. You know?”
I tilted my head. “I understand monogamy isn’t always a sure thing in relationships.” My family’s traumas had taught me too much about addiction, and I was aware of Charlie’s dependence on the adrenaline of rage and sex. “In any case, I’m no one to judge. I’m addicted to carbs.”
He stuck out his chin. “If you can understand, why can’t your brother?”
I shrugged. “He prefers monogamy. His right.” And from what I understood, an impossible goal for Charlie Mac.
He pouted, and his maturity dropped from late thirties to early teens. “Shee-it.” He strode to the front door and swung it open.
“Charlie, are you sure it’s Danny’s approval you’re seeking with the school aide thing?”
He spun around. “I’m not looking for anyone’s approval!”
“Not even your own?”
He flinched. Then a grudging amusement gleamed in his eyes. “You and your brother. Scary what you see.” He turned to leave.
The sign of self-awareness revealed he’d included therapy with his treatment, an act of great courage. Mental illness wasn’t for sissies. Deeply impressed, I held up a hand. “Wait.” I grabbed a piece of holiday headgear from the box of decorations near the tree and approached him. “Bend.”
He obeyed, impressing me further. My daughter wouldn’t comply with an order if God himself came down from on high and offered a million dollars for her obedience.
I took his hat and replaced it with a band that held a shiny gold angel halo over his head. Then I grasped his face and placed a kiss between his brows. “Thank you for inviting me into this miracle.”
Straightening, he looked stunned. He wordlessly accepted the Santa hat I’d removed from his head.
“Merry Christmas,” I quavered. The man offered an incredible, overwhelming gift to a lot of families and teachers.
We blinked wet eyes at each other. He fiddled with the hat. His nod bobbled the halo, and he clomped down the porch. A dark SUV lurked at the curb. He climbed in, the engine turned, and the lights flashed on. The vehicle roared off.
I shut the door and turned up the Christmas music. The red folder called out to me. I sat and leafed through the pages. The plan was detailed and very workable. “Wow.” The file should’ve been labeled “Hope” in large, glittery letters.
My experience with my daughter’s education would support the effort to hire aides, and my book could promote better understanding. If this program succeeded, my numerous life failures might fade a little in comparison. And maybe my inability to give a certain man what he deserved wouldn’t matter quite so much.
“Ave Maria” came over the speakers. I sat back and let a few more tears leak.
Charlie Mac might be shadowed by illness, but his halo cast a fierce glow.