The Key to Charlotte
Charlotte Harris can't speak due to a quirk in her autistic brain, but that doesn't stop her from communicating with others. Unfortunately, it prevents her from achieving two of her dreams--to praise God through singing and to carry on a simple conversation with her own voice.
Zakaria Rush is the new Director of Children's Ministries at Charlotte's church, and he can't keep his thoughts off the partially mute blonde with a love for guitar music. Her innocence and love of the simple things in life intrigue him and make him long to give her what she wants more than anything: her voice.
Can Zakaria help Charlotte find the key to unlocking her ability to speak, or will his attempt to help her only lock away their chance for love?
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Charlotte Harris ran the dust cloth down the wooden railing, leaving behind the scent of lemons as she descended the stairs. After she put away the rag, she had to vacuum the sanctuary—her least favorite task. The whine of the machine inevitably caused her brain to whirl in a storm of chaos, making it impossible to think. When she first got the job of cleaning the church, she’d spent hours forcing herself to endure the painful, thought‐scattering hum of her mother’s vacuum until she could tolerate it well enough to get the job done.
She shook her head with a wry smile. Autism certainly created unique issues. Despite that, she was determined to succeed. This job cleaning the church twice a week was the first job she’d ever had. It was a major step toward independence and she would do whatever it took to do it right.
* * * *
Charlotte switched off the vacuum and breathed a sigh of relief. The silence in the small church was pure bliss. She pulled the plug from the wall and coiled the cord around the top of the vacuum, then returned it to the janitorial closet in the basement. Turning around, she pulled out her cell phone and checked for reminders.
Take the rag bucket home.
Yes, she needed to wash the rags and kitchen towels. She returned the phone to her pocket and grabbed the bucket handle. As she headed upstairs, she heard the sound of a guitar coming from the sanctuary. Was someone playing a CD? It sounded like live music, but she’d never heard anyone in the church play a guitar.
Drawn by the soothing strains of the strings, she turned right at the top of the stairs.
No one ever came in the church while she was cleaning. The entire congregation knew her schedule—Tuesday and Saturday afternoons—and they always made sure to come at a different time. Charlotte had never been sure if it was because they didn’t want to get in her way or if her parents had talked to them about the importance of routine for her. When she was little, she’d gotten upset by people showing up unannounced, but now that she was twenty‐three, she liked to think she could handle surprises a little better.
She peered through the open doorway and saw a man sitting on the edge of the platform by the plain wooden altar playing a battered acoustic guitar.
Her breath caught in her throat and her heart raced as she studied him. Not only was he a talented musician, he was gorgeous, more gorgeous than anyone she’d ever seen in this small Indiana town. His black hair was a little shaggy but stylish; his straight nose, high cheekbones, and tan complexion made her think of Native Americans and Italians; his lean build clothed in faded blue jeans, an olive green T‐shirt, and worn‐in sneakers made him look laid back. Peace filled his face as he strummed his guitar. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, making Charlotte wonder if the sound of a guitar brought him as much joy as it did her.
Suddenly, he stopped playing and looked up at her. She tightened her grasp on the bucket handle.
He studied her with the most beautiful, warm brown eyes she’d ever seen. His smile caused her heart to flutter. “Hi there. Are you Charlotte?”
He didn’t seem to mind that she shifted her weight back and forth. Just as well. If she didn’t rock to release it, the nervous energy building under his gaze would make her cry.
“Pastor Ed told me I might run into you if I came this afternoon. I’m Zakaria Rush, the new director of children’s ministries.” He laid his guitar across his knees and chuckled, a deep, rich sound that warmed Charlotte clear through. “It’s a fancy title for a guy who didn’t want to grow up and found a way to turn it into a career.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant. Sometimes it felt as though her brain was riddled with roadblocks and she had difficulty comprehending…wait. He worked here? Had anyone warned him that she didn’t talk? She knew the basics of speech, but putting all the sounds together to form words and sentences was beyond her. She’d learned sign language, but very few people knew more than a couple of basic signs. That’s why her cell phone had a text‐to‐speech application.
She set the bucket on the floor and reached for her cell phone. As she pulled it out, Zakaria spoke again.
“You want to join me? I’m teaching the first and second grade Sunday school class tomorrow since their regular teacher is away this weekend, and I’m trying to decide which songs to use. Maybe you can help me figure out what the kids will respond to the best.”
The thought of listening to his guitar longer propelled her into the sanctuary, and she sat on the floor in front of him. She loved songs that praised God. She was sure He heard her sing them in her heart and mind.
“Awesome.” Zakaria gave her a warm smile and picked up his guitar. “So, what was your favorite church song when you were a kid?”
She typed in the song title and selected the speak button. A second later, the familiar synthesized female voice said, “‘Rise and Shine.’”
“Oh, I always loved that one, too. I still do.” He played a couple of chords for the upbeat song, then flashed her a grin. “That’s a pretty cool way to talk, by the way. Must be very useful.”
She nodded, stunned that he was treating her so normally. Was it possible he saw past her inability to talk to the woman inside? Or maybe he was just used to mutes and instinctively knew her lack of speech wasn’t connected to a lack of intelligence—something not everyone seemed to know.
He played a few more chords, his gaze still on her as though waiting for something, and then he paused. “Pastor Ed told me you use your phone to communicate, but he wasn’t real clear about whether you choose not to talk or if you can’t talk. Do you mind if I ask which it is?”
Her brain froze, and she took a moment to decipher his question. She typed for a few seconds. “I’m mute because of autism. I can’t get the words out.”
Zakaria nodded. “Gotcha. But I can tell you’ve got all the words in your brain. I bet you’re a good writer, since that’s how you communicate.”
She smiled, thinking of all the messages she sent from her phone. “I’m a good texter, anyway.”
He laughed and started strumming his guitar again. “I believe it. Now, I’ll do the singing and you can let me know what you think. Just don’t laugh if I sound terrible, OK?”
How could anyone as talented with a guitar as he was be a terrible singer? Of course, given her own contradictory ways, anything was possible. She set down her phone and then braced her hands on the floor behind her, leaning back to listen. She’d know in a moment if he could sing or not.
As he sang about Noah’s “arky” in his rich baritone voice, she longed to join in. His voice flowed over her, wrapping her in the warmth of musically praising God.
She’d always found guitar music soothing. Unfortunately, her parents hadn’t been able to find a guitar teacher who was willing to work with a mute autistic. Watching Zakaria now, she wondered if he would be willing to teach her.
He finished “Rise and Shine” and laid his guitar beside him. “Well, you’re not in tears, which is a good sign. What did you think?”
She straightened and grabbed her phone. “You’re good. The kids will love listening to you.”
“I hope they’ll love singing with me, too.” He grinned and winked. “You’re the only one I’ll let get away with staying silent.”
She laughed. His easy manner had a way of making her feel good about herself. For some reason, it served as a reminder that it was OK for her to be different. She was how God made her.
Zakaria lifted his eyebrows and tilted his head to the side. “Ah, so you do have a voice. Are you sure you can’t talk?”
She nodded; she’d been through enough speech therapy as a child to know. “I guess you could say I’m partially mute. The sound is there, but my brain can’t organize it right.”
“Sounds kind of like dyslexia. The ability is there; it just doesn’t work the same way it does for most people.” He crossed his arms on his knees and leaned forward. “You know, I struggled with school because of dyslexia until I finally found the key to help me learn. What worked for me was organizing things in different colored folders and using colored plastic sheets over anything I had to read. I still use colored paper for a lot of things because it’s easier for me to understand what the words say.”
“I wish it were that easy for me.”
“Maybe it is, but you haven’t found the key to unlocking your ability to speak.” He straightened and smiled. “Or maybe God has plans for you other than speaking with your voice. He’s good about giving us the abilities we need to do whatever He has planned for us.”
She’d considered that a time or two, but still hadn’t figured out what God could want her to do that involved her being unable to talk. The best she’d come up with was that He wanted her to listen more than to speak, but she knew people who were great at listening and they could talk as well as anyone.
“Is it hard to learn to play a guitar?”
Zakaria shrugged and picked up the instrument again. “It wasn’t for me. Of course, I had a friend once who struggled to learn to play. He finally gave up and took piano lessons. He had no trouble learning that and is a great pianist, now.” He rose and moved to sit on her left side. “You want to try playing my guitar? I can help you learn a couple of chords, if you want.”
Charlotte nodded, accepting the guitar. The smooth wood under her fingers felt more right than any other instrument she’d ever touched. The metallic scent of the strings was a little weird, but she didn’t find it unpleasant.
Zakaria took her left hand and placed it near the top of the guitar’s neck. His touch sent a shiver through her.
Was it OK to be attracted to someone she’d just met?
“OK, these little metal lines are the frets. When playing a chord, your fingers go between the frets; otherwise, it sounds muted and odd.” He arranged her fingertips on the strings, then sat back and smiled. “Press down hard on the strings with your left hand, and then use your right hand to strum.”
She did as instructed, pleased when a real chord sounded. She strummed again, the way she’d seen Zakaria do it, and glanced at him with a smile.
“Awesome. You’ve just played the C chord. Now, if you’ll move your fingers here”—he rearranged the placement of her fingers on the strings—“you’ll play the chord of F.”
She pressed down and played the chord. As the sound drifted through the sanctuary, her brain connected the F to the C chord and she realized what Zakaria was doing. She lifted her right hand from the guitar and retrieved her phone. “Are you teaching me to play ‘Rise and Shine’?”
He chuckled and nodded, his eyes twinkling. “You caught me. You said it was your favorite. I thought you might like to learn how to play it.”
The music had always lifted her heart, but she’d never been able to share the song with anyone other than God. If she could learn to play it on the guitar, maybe she could help others feel the same joy by hearing it. And if Zakaria wanted to sing while she played, it would make the whole experience even better.
He taught her the G chord, then he took her through chords in the order they appeared in the song.
Hope filled Charlotte. She could share the music inside her with others. Excitement filled her when she played and Zakaria sang along. It no longer mattered so much that she couldn’t sing it. She could play it.
Had Zakaria felt the same connection with the music and the instrument, as though they were a part of him?
The last notes drifted into the silence of the sanctuary, and Charlotte realized the daylight illuminating the room was fading.
Zakaria checked his watch as her cell phone chimed. “Wow. We’ve been sitting here for almost two hours. Did it seem that long to you?” he asked.
She shook her head as she opened the text.
“Charlotte, you’re running late today. Let me know if you’re all right.” She smacked her palm against her forehead; she should have known her mom would worry.
Charlotte typed a quick message to her mother assuring her she’d be home soon. Once it sent, she opened the text‐to‐speech application. “When I clean the church, I’m usually home an hour or more before this. My mom was checking on me.”
“I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me that you might have someone expecting you.” He looked up at the simple wooden cross hanging on the wall behind the pulpit, and then returned his gaze to her. “Do you need a ride home?”
The thought of spending a little longer with him was appealing, even if it didn’t involve music. “No ride necessary. I live half a block from here. But you can come with me if you want.”
He smiled and took the guitar from her. “In that case, we can drop this off in my office, and then I’ll walk you home.”
He rose and reached down.
She took his hand without hesitation, and then realized she wouldn’t have done that with anyone else. Why did it feel so natural now? The touch of his fingers felt right. Could God be trying to tell her something? Was she reading too much into it all?