Violent Light | Chapter 1: Charlie

Click here to read the prologue to this story.

Charlie woke sweating, as though she had been running. She put a hand up to her clammy forehead, suddenly concerned she had the flu. Blinking away the fuzziness from her eyes, she sat up rigidly.

What had she been dreaming about? Everything seemed so real…from the old man to a strange flash of light. Charlie shook her head in disbelief. And why on earth did she remember a milk jug? That was weird.

Shrugging, she slid her legs over the side of her bed and stretched wearily. She almost expected something unusual to pop out of the recesses of her messy closet. As it were, there were a number of unusual objects inhabiting Charlie’s room. Though Charlie appeared normal in every sense of the word, her room indicated otherwise.

Books filled nearly every vacant space. Stacked ten or fifteen volumes high, most were falling apart at the seams. The musty odor of aged paper filled the air. Nana likened her room to a bombed out World War II bunker. This isn’t to say Charlie was not organized, of course. She knew where to find any book in her collection if she needed it.

Science books stood on her desk, grouped by subject. A plethora of American classics (sorted A-Z by author) lay haphazardly next to her rock polishing kit. Names like Dickens, Hemingway, and Sagan stood out among the piles. A few potted plants drooped lazily against the window sill.  

Only one piece of furniture did not sag tiredly from the weight of dusty, ancient books. A small nightstand bore one novel, the title worn off the cover. It caught Charlie’s eye as she hopped off her bed .

An original copy of The Metamorphosis. She had been sifting through Nana’s old high school textbooks and found it buried underneath a large stuffed bird. Delighted by her find, she began reading the novella a few weeks ago.

Walking gingerly around a few piles of books, Charlie trudged over to the window beside her desk. She opened the blinds and let the watery dawn light cascade into her room. After her eyes adjusted to the sun, she pressed her nose to the glass and peered down the street.

Pruned bushes divided well-manicured lawns into neat sections. She grinned as she noticed a couple of stubborn weeds growing by the mailbox on the front lawn. Her suburban neighbors sniffed at the fact Nana and Charlie did not spend their weekends weeding and clipping the hedges like they did.

Charlie scanned the sidewalk. No one stirred, save for Mr. Peterson and his dog, Pickles. Pickles strained against his leash as Mr. Peterson absentmindedly spilled coffee down his robe. The Beechwood Gazette was jammed under his arm and he appeared blissfully unaware of the hot liquid draining out of his mug. The front door of his house was still flung wide open, letting in the humid summer air.

Charlie shook her head and laughed. Out of all the snobby people on Yorkshire Drive, Mr. Peterson and Pickles were the friendliest.

Mr. Peterson arrived in Beechwood a few years ago with nothing but Pickles, a Volvo, and a hefty down payment on the house two yards across from Charlie and Nana. He was a curious man.

Middle-aged, quirky, and offering no insight into his previous life, he and Charlie instantly bonded over American Transcendentalism one morning before school. His glasses askew, he launched into a tirade on Emerson while letting the tea kettle boil over in the kitchen. Pickles ran around barking desperately as if he were fully aware of his owner’s shortcomings. It was always a madhouse at Mr. Peterson’s house and Charlie loved it.

He never prodded into Charlie’s past life and neither did she into his. It was an unspoken agreement amongst the pair. Though not much was known about Mr. Peterson, the neighbors often gossiped as they trimmed their hedges and picked weeds. Even Nana participated and Charlie knew she hated consorting with the neighbors.

“I heard he was a professor before he moved here to Beechwood,” Nana said one night at dinner.

“Professor of what?” Charlie asked while twirling spaghetti around her fork. She tried masking her curiosity out of respect, but couldn’t resist information that was so readily available.

Nana squinted and looked up at the ceiling.

“Matilda thinks it was history before he was fired. If you ask me, that explains a lot. The man is clearly a genius, but he would lose his head if it wasn’t attached.”

“Matilda lies so often I doubt she even knows what’s real anymore. You know that,” Charlie stopped twirling her fork around in circles to give Nana a look. “It could be completely untrue.”

Nana shrugged and reached for a piece of garlic bread.

“Beats me, hun. Next time you go over, can you please bring him the book on the counter? Heaven knows why he wants to know about fishing practices on the east coast, but I figured I’m not using it anytime soon.”

Mr. Peterson was always wrapped up in some project or another. Before school, Charlie walked past his two-story house on the way to the bus stop. She’d hear classical music blasting one day or see him frantically paging through books on his porch the next.

Neighbors condemned his odd behavior within hours of his arrival. But Charlie knew “odd” was only relative to the hegemony of Yorkshire Drive. Unless your primary concern was bragging about the quality of your rhododendron bushes, you were sniffed at. Charlie welcomed Mr. Peterson and Pickles’ arrival. She didn’t feel so alone.

Charlie pressed the palms of her hands to her sweaty temples and closed her eyes. She could only imagine what her neighbors would say if they knew she’d been having bizarre dreams for the last month. They’d probably encourage Nana to ship her off to boarding school. They had a deep distrust of the public school system for reasons unknown to Charlie.

Side stepping a pile of National Audubon Society guidebooks on mammals and birds, Charlie walked to her closet and changed for the day. School was out for the summer, but she opted for a Jansport backpack and threw in a few wildflower guides. Charlie adjusted her t-shirt and glanced in the mirror on the back of her bedroom door. She stared blankly at her reflection.

Freckles splashed across her arms and bridge of her nose, skin slightly tanned from the time she spent outdoors collecting rocks or swimming at the beach. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and cocked her head to the side. The mirror cut off the top half of Charlie’s face. She was taller than most the boys in her eighth grade class but didn’t mind the teasing her height encouraged. Being tall made her feel important.

With a sigh, Charlie turned away from her reflection. She grabbed a sketchbook from her desk, managed to find a pencil under her bed, and tiptoed down the stairs. Nana wouldn’t be up for another hour. Grabbing an apple from the kitchen counter, she slipped out the front door, hopped on her bike, and pedaled down Yorkshire toward the rising sun.  

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