“You need to see Gary,” said Juno when Charlie arrived at her apartment and told her what he was trying to do. Mrs. De La Cruz forced him to sit down and put several dishes filled with food in front of him that were all steaming hot and smelled delicious. He tried to tell her no, but she proceeded to sit a plate in front of him and dished large helpings of food onto it. Then a few of her floating dominoes shoved a knife and fork into his hand. Juno shrugged as if to say that it was no use fighting her.
So he ate, which was probably a good thing since he hadn’t eaten all day, and as it turned out, he was starving. Mrs. De La Cruz also made a plate for Bear, who, Charlie suspected, was liked quite a bit more than himself. Bear happily ate the hot meal.
“How are you liking it here?” asked Mrs. De La Cruz.
“Oh,” Charlie quickly finished the bite of food he was chewing. “It’s nice, I guess.”
Mrs. De La Cruz stared at him, clearly expecting more.
“It’s nice having so many people around. People who…care.”
“Didn’t you have people who cared back home?” she asked.
He thought about his mother. He hadn’t reached out to her or gone to check on her, but somehow he knew she wouldn’t care either way. She often went on long trips away from home without a word to him, shacking up with a new boyfriend or taking a weekend trip without ever mentioning it. She once drank too much and admitted to him that she never wanted children and, if she could do it all over, she would have gotten an abortion. The sad thing was that this hadn’t surprised Charlie in the least. So, yes, it was something special to have so many people around that not only seemed to care about him, but also cared deeply for each other.
“Charlie?” He looked up to see Mrs. De La Cruz watching him. He’d completely lost himself in his thoughts.
“Sorry,” he said. “No, not a whole lot of people who care back home.” He took another bite.
“That’s a real shame,” said Mrs. De La Cruz. “Everyone deserves to have a little love in their life.”
“Yeah, well just because everyone deserves a little, doesn’t mean they have it,” said Charlie. But as he heard the words leave his mouth, he realized how rude they sounded. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s alright dear,” she said. “But might I offer a bit of advice.”
Charlie looked up at her.
“When it comes to love and care,” she started. “It starts with us loving and caring for ourselves.” She took a finger and poked it right into his chest. “It starts here.”
To Charlie’s surprise, a sudden shuddering sob escaped his mouth and a tear rolled down his face. It was as if the emotion was imprisoned deep inside him and suddenly broke free. He put a hand to his mouth to stifle the cry. “I’m … so sorry,” he said, wiping away a tear.
Mrs. De La Cruz smiled at Juno on the opposite side of the table and then reached out and put a hand over Charlie’s. “My dear boy. Whoever taught you to apologize for expressing your emotions, was quite wrong.”
Charlie and Bear finished eating quietly and then left with Juno, but before they left Mrs. De La Cruz gave Charlie a tight warm hug. “Stay strong young man,” she said in his ear. “You still have a long story ahead of you.”
They left the apartment and headed down the hall to apartment 202.
“You’re mom’s kind of awesome,” said Charlie.
“She’s been through a lot. No one just wakes up and is that sagely,” said Juno. “When my Dad passed away, it was really hard on her. And then when my brother … well, the point is, she made it through all of it, and now she’s basically Yoda.”
“What about you?” asked Charlie.
“What about me?”
“How did you deal with your dad’s passing?”
Juno stopped mid-stride and looked at him. “I started playing music. There were days I couldn’t even talk, but I could always play. I could always find a song to work through my emotions, even when I couldn’t find the words for them.”
“I hope I find a way to process everything I’ve been through someday,” said Charlie. But then, a smile broke across his face as he recalled the feelings of joy and accomplishment that planting, and learning to wield his various tools gave him. “Though, maybe I’m starting to figure that out.”
“Well then let’s get you back to it ASAP,” she said. She knocked on the apartment 202.
The door swung open abruptly as if the occupant had been standing behind it and waiting for them to knock. They were greeted by a thin man with dark skin, wild hair and a scraggly little white beard. He was wearing a wrinkled white shirt and beige slacks with thick work gloves on his hands. Charlie also noticed that the man’s apartment seemed to be very dark even though it was only mid-afternoon. Yet from somewhere deep inside a soft orange glow emanated.
“Juno!” he said in a deep, kind voice. “I haven’t seen you in some time, young lady. Staying out of trouble I hope?”
“Or trying, at least,” she responded and gave the man a hug. “This is our new resident Charlie.” She waved a hand in Charlie’s direction. “He’s Arthur’s grandson.”
“Well well,” said the man. “You must be the reason old Franny has started glowing again. But where are my manners? The name is Gary. Gary Rocolo.” He extended a hand and gave Charlie a firm handshake.
“Charlie Cole,” said Charlie. “And who is Franny?”
“Franny is my forge,” said the man with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m sorry, forge?” asked Charlie. “As in, olden days sword-making type of forge?”
“I don’t know about olden days,” said Gary. “But you are in the presence of a fully trained master blacksmith, and Franny is the vessel through which I hone my craft.” He eyed them both with the look of a child excited to show his parents a new toy. “But maybe a demonstration is in order. Come in! Come in!” He opened the door wide for them.
Charlie and Juno entered the apartment, and Charlie found that his nose was immediately filled with a thick smoky fragrance. The air was thick and heavy. The door across from them in the entry hall was slightly ajar and from inside an orange glow seemed to flicker. “This way, this way,” said Gary. He opened the door and ushered them into a room that was entirely too big to be in a Brooklyn apartment. The room was filled with a massive forge made of thick stone and black metal which looked like the face of some ancient monster that might live inside a volcano. Glowing molten metal streamed through the machine, illuminating the room.
“What is that!?” asked Charlie who was completely flabbergasted by what he was seeing.
“This is Franny,” said Gary. “She can make any scrap of metal into something worth its salt. Not to mention a proper sword, axe, mace or shield.” He suddenly caught himself. “Though as of right she’s only really good for burning coal and smelting copper.”
“Well that’s lucky since smelted copper is exactly what I need made,” said Charlie. He pulled the backpack around and reached in to pull out the copper tubes and wires that he collected in the catacombs.
“Ahh, let’s see now,” said Gary, taking the tubes from Charlie as if they were priceless artifacts. “Yes I do think we can do something with these.” He took them to the forge and opened a large grated compartment in the front. He placed the copper tubing onto a small tray that popped out and then pushed it back in and closed the grated door. He walked over to the side of the forge where there was a large lever. “Now for the magic,” he said and then pulled down on the lever.
There was a loud FWOOM of steam as loud clangs and bangs started to fill the room around them. The forge lit up even brighter than before as various pistons and levers moved in chaotic harmony with each other. Bear barked at the forge, clearly not enjoying all the noise. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it all stopped with a sudden Ding! The compartment popped open and there sat two shimmering orange bars of copper which looked like delicately wrapped bars of chocolate.
“Woah,” said Charlie. “That’s amazing!”
“It is indeed,” said Gary, patting the forge on the side. He walked over to the grate and lifted the bars, taking them to Charlie and placing them in his hands. “For you, good sir. Bring me more, won’t you? Before long she’ll be back to her old self.”
“I can definitely do that,” said Charlie. “In fact, I have a few more bits of copper. Mind doing a couple more rounds for me?”
Gary’s eyes lit up. “Well why didn’t you say so!” Let’s get to smelting!” Without further ado, they went to work loading the forge with all the copper Charlie had collected. Before long, he had a good supply of copper bars. Gary was ecstatic, telling them to come back with even more as they said their farewells. Charlie, Juno and Bear headed back down the hall.
“Little does he know, we’ll have to risk our lives again if we want to get more scraps anytime soon,” said Charlie.
“Aw, it wasn’t so bad,” said Juno. “We only almost died like three times.”
“Fair, next time we’ll shoot for a solid five near-deaths.”
They laughed as they reached Juno’s apartment. “Hey,” started Charlie. “You’re friends with Milo, right?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Do you think you could talk to him about hanging outside my window and watching me all the time?”
Juno rolled her eyes. “Have you tried telling a cat what to do? They’re not exactly team players.”
“Sure, I just thought maybe you could persuade him,” said Charlie.
“Or, and I know this is crazy,” she placed a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “You could talk to him yourself.”
“I’m not really big on confrontation,” said Charlie.
“Sounds like you could use the practice then,” Juno grinned. “Milo is a good person. He cares about this place, and the people who live here. But he’s also lost a lot of people that he really cared about. That does something to a person. It makes it so hard for them to trust anyone. And they start to think that maybe the easiest course of action is just to be on their own.”
“How do we break through all of that?”
“Well, you remember that in his heart, Milo is still basically a kitten. He might act aloof, and he might seem like a jerk, but if he’s hanging out on your window every day and checking up on you, I think it’s safe to say he cares about you. Even if he might not say that part out loud.”
“So what, should I bribe him with tuna fish?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Juno said with a wry smile.
“You can’t be serious,” said Charlie.
“I am always serious Charles,” she opened her apartment door and grinned once more. “Except for when I’m not.” She gave him a wink and disappeared into the apartment.
Charlie looked down at Bear. “That was not helpful, was it?”
Bear only quirked his head and barked a small whimper.
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
Good news! I am feeling much better and finally out of the Covid woods! For the next couple of weeks, chapters might be a bit odd. There will be a new Chapter this coming Monday but then Carl and I will be at Gen Con checking out the latest boardgames for the rest of the week and weekend, so we’ll essentially be taking a week off. I’m hoping to get to a place where I am ahead enough on edits to never take time days off posting BUT we just aren’t there yet. So sorry! But I hope you enjoyed this chapter and the one that comes next!!
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE