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Enigmatic Charlie

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The acrid air permeated Dr. David Huxley’s senses as he staggered across the dusty, red ground. His eyelids drooped and he stumbled over an uneven section of the path. His head snapped upright. “Good Lord, how much farther?” How could he have let Susan convince him that coming to Colorado would help the museum? Why did he let her convince him about anything?

“Almost there professor, just stay on this path for a few more minutes and you can’t miss the outpost.” The khaki-clad young man in front of him spotted something out of David’s view and abruptly halted, nodded at David with a terse “Sir,” spun on his heels and marched in the opposite direction. 

Military nonsense never failed to leave him flabbergasted, but their money was good and interest in fossils low, so he’d work on taking Susan’s advice to ‘mind the bones and forget the rest.’ His eyes crinkled in delight as he recalled her insistent kisses across his neck and forehead, a distraction from the latest round of money begging to keep the museum functioning. Gracious, for some unknown reason, she truly loved him.

He topped a hill and blew out a breath in relief as he spotted giant holes crisscrossed with ropes, rows of tents, and workmen and scientists chatting in the glow of the evening sun. He gripped the suitcase handle tighter and trudged on until he spotted his tent, an olive canvas affair just high enough for him to enter without ducking. He placed his suitcase in the corner, not wanting to jostle it more than the rest of the journey already had, and peered around the lamplit space. Hold on there Huxley, why is there another cot in here?

Before he could summon the energy to storm out of the tent and complain, a grubby figure strode inside and handed him a card. Without a word, the person shucked his boots, took a deep drink from his canteen, and tucked himself into the opposite cot. 

David sputtered in confusion and glanced quickly from the card to the man. What on earth was happening? The man’s soft snores indicated that the card was his easiest answer, so David squinted to read the small print. 

No voice but ears work. Charlie - Right hand man in these parts, as needed. 

Just his luck. He couldn’t even get a tent to himself, but at least it would be relatively silent.

He kept an eye on Charlie, who remained facing away as he slept, hat still jammed low over his ears. David decided that worrying over this anymore was a waste of precious energy so he quickly changed into his pajamas, turned down the lamp, and fell into a deep and desperately needed slumber.

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When David awoke the next morning, bleary-eyed and befuddled, Charlie’s cot was empty. He dressed, arranged the sheets, and cleaned himself up as best as he could given the, well, rustic circumstances. 

He made his way to the mess tent and selected the safest choice: a split grapefruit and Earl Gray tea. The only available seat appeared to be directly across from his tentmate, so he grit his teeth and wandered in Charlie’s direction. In order to get any real rest, he’d need to stay on this fellow’s good side. 

David slid into the bench and primed his first question, then snapped his jaw shut as he remembered that Charlie couldn’t answer complicated questions. He caught the edges of a smirk on Charlie’s sooty and unlined face between shoveled bites of cornflakes and stared at his own bowl in consternation. 

“Alright, how about this? I’ll make a guess about you and you either nod or shake your head ‘no.’ Does that work?”

Charlie kept his gaze low but gave a slight nod. His heavy canvas jacket shrouded his hunched form, a gray cotton work shirt and worn suspenders barely peeking out. 

David took his first bite to buy some time but almost missed his chance when Charlie abruptly stood. My, this fellow was slight! Was he even old enough to work here? Focus, David

“Wait, uh, you needed work where people valued what you know, not how you say filler things that don’t matter. That’s why you are perfect for your job. You just get it done.” David returned to his breakfast, lacking the fortitude to see if his gambit worked. He looked up after feeling the table shift from the added weight to the attached bench.

Charlie pulled his checkered bandana over his mouth, leaned his chin into his propped fists, and softly tipped his head forward. 

David grinned, delighted at the improvement in his perceptive abilities, honed by Susan (and not always with his knowledge). “Charlie, do you know how I can tell all those things about you?” Charlie’s eyes widened and he shook his head. David leaned forward and whispered, “I’ve recently come to understand them to be true about myself . And I see it now in others. Everywhere.” Sitting up, David dug into the last of his grapefruit, slurped his tea, and then grabbed his dishes and cup. “Busy day on the site. See you out there, chum!”

Charlie kept his face in his hands but his eyes glimmered and he followed closely behind David throughout the rest of the day.

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The dig stretched on for days, and David grew to appreciate Charlie’s helpfulness though he barely saw him long enough to thank him. He fetched David hot tea at all hours, distracted the museum interns from asking David endless questions by “accidentally” tripping over their fossils and tools, and found places to scurry off to most evenings when David wrote his daily notes (and secret letters to Susan). They established an easy rhythm which suited David, though he often wondered if he would ever truly know this capable young man.

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Crunching leaves. Gunshots. Deep growls and a swipe of claws. A body atop of him, warm, curvaceous, giggling. His shoulders, tossing to and fro.

David shook his head in confusion at his surroundings and the incessant jostling, as he left the dream world for the tent. He could barely make out Charlie’s face in the semi-darkness and hoped he kept his tone even as he asked, “Charlie, what on earth is the matter? And couldn’t it wait till morning? I have to be rested for my flight home.”

Charlie’s shoulders shook with barely contained laughter and the bandana fell to his neck. He grinned so wide it nearly split his face. “You are unbelievable. You really couldn’t tell? Should have paid that acting coach more, I suppose.”

“Susan?! Wha? How did you—How long have you been here?” David pulled his wife onto his lap, briefly worried about the cot collapsing but abandoning that concern when he thought of how much he’d missed the feel of her next to him. 

She laughed, loud, long, and full, her voice filling his ears and heart with pure joy. She tore off her hat, tossed it on the opposite cot and yanked out more bobby pins than he’d ever seen in his life. She shook out her full curls, batted her eyelashes, and melted into his arms. “How are you feeling now, David?”

He traced her jawline, slid his fingers through her hair, and grasped it at the roots. He drew her close and leaned down, hovering above her lips, as he whispered, “Besotted, dear Susan.”