Kleronomos Chapter One
The truth often sounds pretentious when it’s told to you. It’s because people secretly know the truth already but they want to shut it away and live in a fantasy world, constantly escaping through words or pictures or distracting noise. Humans are amazing in the way that they can simultaneously know the truth and forget about it. The ability to ignore. It’s such a powerful ability used more often than not to forget the discomfort of the present until some fearless pedant feels the need to share it with you. They bring up the ugliness of you and the people you know and don’t and you become angry because you were doing such a great job ignoring it. You were happy being ignorant, and now that this person has brought it back to your attention it’s suddenly their fault for it even having existed in the first place. Listen to them telling you about things you already know and choose to ignore for the sake of proving their intelligence to you. They want to share with you the ugliness because they’re not afraid of it. But you are. Aren’t you? Isn’t that why one reads fiction?
Charlie’s not the kind of girl who reads fiction like her brother, but she’s not immune to the human condition either. Charlie found escape in music instead. She found it first as a child when she watched her father play his guitar and wanted to find a common ground and so picked one up herself. She found it again when she realized that the reason he drank was because the guitar wasn’t enough so she put it down. Then she found it over and over in every instrument until music was the only language that made sense to her. It was comfort. It could never be ugly like the world because music that wasn’t beautiful was just noise. This was her truth and somewhere along the line Charlie stopped caring about who believed it. Most people don’t want to hear things like that anyway. Things like the truth, I mean.
Up in the mountains of Northern California where the snow fell hard during the winter and the sun beat down in the summer, Charlie learned how to alienate the most obscure types of people. Sitting out on the porch of her father’s old wooden farmhouse, little fingers figured out the right placement on a tiny trumpet while an unpracticed mouth blew and blew until noise became music. The sound didn’t stop when small, white, mushroom-like creatures sprouted from the ground and began to join hands, dancing in a circle. Whiskey colored eyes watched them, indifferently at first, until she realized that they were dancing for her. Charlie kicked her feet out at that thought, her eyes crinkling as she tried not to let her smile ruin her playing. When her song finished, the little mushroom men stopped to look at her as if waiting for the next number, and Charlie was happy to pick her tiny trumpet back up until a foot came down on top of the creatures. She flinched hard at the sound, reaching her arm out.
“What?” A neighbor boy asked, lifting his shoe self-consciously but relaxing when he saw nothing.
Charlie dropped her arm despondently, her trumpet resting on the loose fabric that hung just over her knees. “You stepped on them.” She watched the little men dissolve into light and the boy’s eyes followed hers up into the sky, clear blue orbs searching for something he could never see.
“Stepped on what?” He glared at her the way humans do when they become aware that there’s something they don’t understand.
“The mushroom men. They were having fun and you squashed them.” The tiny girl glared right back.
The boy looked down at his worn out sneakers in desperate need of replacing, even lifting up his pant leg before taking a few steps back. Blue eyes stared into brown and glossed over with a childlike fear.
“You’re crazy!” He shouted and ran.
Those were the kinds of interactions that filled Charlie’s childhood. They drove her away from other kids, but it didn’t bother her because she had something better than them. Humans need that one good thing in their life and Charlie had music. Music passed the time and gave her a sense of accomplishment as she improved. Music made her father interested in her because it was something they could share. Music made him proud of her and she could see it in his eyes when he patted her head or showed her a record. That’s why quitting music meant quitting him as well.
To the eyes of the world it seemed strange. Charlie was a prodigy. She played every day as if nothing else mattered and then, suddenly, in her second year of high school, she just stopped. In the middle of a performance, in the front row of the trumpet section, Charlie stopped playing. Soon after, she stopped going to school. Then she stopped visiting her father as well. Not because she was afraid of his disappointment but because, without music, there was no reason to anymore.
It was around that time that Charlie began to notice the world of humans around her. The kids her age who she once thought were faceless and nameless suddenly had cut-off relations to her and opinions that only came in the form of whispers that Charlie assumed were about her. Elliot, her younger brother whose hazel eyes had always sparkled at her in awe as if she were a magical fairy, had become dull and frustrated. The world had always looked at Charlie with angry eyes, but now that her brother did too she was finally beginning to feel the weight of it. She tried not to pay it any mind. She couldn’t change what was done after all.
If only they knew, she thought. If only they could see them too. If they could, they would have noticed that the mushroom men had grown bigger, or that more human like creatures had come to watch as well. They would notice the dragons hovering closer to her or the masked figures following timidly behind her on the streets. If they could see them then they would know that her music called more than just friendly creatures that play and dance. It called monsters and demons made of smoke and fire. It called the kinds of things that made Charlie wonder if she was a monster too.
Classical music was a blessing and a curse. It was pure and beautiful—definitely Charlie’s favorite—but it also made her think. Alone in her bedroom, her long brown hair draped over the side of her bed as she stared sideways at one of the many music sheets stapled to her wall. Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3, Notturno played loudly from her cheap phone speaker, and she glared at the notes in front of her for not matching up. She didn’t like to play piano, or any strings instrument for that matter. It wasn’t the same when you played from your fingers alone, Charlie thought. You had to literally breathe life into an instrument to feel truly fulfilled. It was one of many of her very particular opinions.
“Charlie!” Came a muffled voice, fighting through Liszt and the door for a place in Charlie’s ears. Three loud knocks came before the door opened and Charlie turned lazily to see her mother shamelessly entering her sacred space.
“Why bother knocking if you’re just going to barge in anyway?” The girl drolled.
“If you’d have just answered me then I wouldn’t have barged in.”
“Oh, that makes it perfectly okay then,” Charlie said sarcastically, rolling her eyes with a full head motion until her face was back facing the sheet music on the wall.
Charlie’s mother, a small woman with a confident stride and work worn hands, shook her head, grabbing her daughter’s phone and lowering the volume until the girl sat up to protest. The woman sat carelessly on the bed like she owned it with little regard for how much space she took up and Charlie moved, begrudgingly, to give her room. She looked around with a resigned frown, pushing the few loose strands of short caramel colored hair behind her ear and taking in the sheet music and framed records on the wall before resting on a shelf of trophies and ribbons. She remembered a time when three was the highest number she’d see on that shelf, and her shoulders fell a bit at the sight of the tenth place ribbon hanging daringly off of one side as if it was getting ready to end it all.
“Why do you keep all of this up if you’re never going to play?” She asked solemnly.
“I like it. What’s the big deal?” Charlie answered, with more attitude than she meant to. “You don’t have to look at it if you don’t want to.”
“I do if I want to see my only daughter since she’s a hermit who never leaves her bedroom. Seriously.” She leaned over to the window and jerked open the curtains, sending Charlie into a vampire like fit of hissing and covering her eyes. “When was the last time you went outside? You wouldn’t look good without that tan, Charlie. You should take a walk for your vanity if nothing else.”
Charlie protested, removing her coffee tinted arms from over her eyes and wondering if they had been much darker before. She concluded that they might’ve been a few summers ago but refused to vocalize it. “I’m not going to get darker, it’s freezing outside!”
“But the sun’s out!” Her mother smiled. “Just take a walk. And try to think about something other than music.”
Begrudgingly, the teen collected her jacket and boots and ushered her mother out of the room. After changing from a pair of plush red pajamas that may or may not have been on her for a day or two, Charlie slipped into some jeans and, not bothering to replace her comfortable tee shirt, snuggled into her favorite rose colored jacket and scarf. She watched her hands in the mirror as they pulled long, messy brown hair into a pony tail and remembered a time when she used to pull that same hair back much tighter for competitions. With a long drawn out sigh, Charlie shoved her hands into her pockets and left her room, only stopping once in front of her brother’s closed door before exiting the small, standalone apartment.
The air outside was mild compared to the snowy days she knew would come in a few months, but to Charlie who hadn’t left the perfectly temperate house in weeks, it was enough to send a shiver up her shoulders. She watched her breath in front of her as she droned on mindlessly, trying to quiet her head as she made music of the world around her. The crunch of the leaves, the sparse footsteps of passersby, the distant sound of cars from the city below her mountain road. The flicker of the street lights coming on added to her makeshift symphony and she shoved her hands further into her pockets to keep them from fingering an imaginary trumpet.
Charlie didn’t like to take walks, least of all in the cold fall air that seemed melancholy and sent her into a somber mood. The atmosphere was a breeding ground for the kind of thoughts that weakens ones resolve. Her mother, who had been supportive about her decisions but hid disappointment behind beautiful green eyes, told her that she had all the time in the world to figure her life out. Those words that were meant to be a comfort had only made Charlie feel more rushed, like she was running out of time. What was she supposed to do now that she was a year away from being an adult with nothing to show for it but a history in a field that she could no longer enter and a skill that is impractical to begin with? She wasn’t good with words or with math or the many other subjects that escaped her and that Elliot performed so well with what seemed like very little effort. There was nothing in this world for her but sounds that she could not create and things that no one believed she could really see.
She cursed under her breath as the words of her mother and the advice of her old teachers seemed to pile together at her feet and she tried to stomp on them but it escaped her every step. It just sounded like them telling her to waste all of her time until Elliot graduated high school and went on to some nerd college and left her behind in his shadow. Even though Charlie was the oldest. Even though Charlie was a prodigy. Even though Charlie wanted to play. Louder, she swore again, stomping hard on those imaginary words, but it was only pavement now.
“Frustrated?” Called a young woman’s voice. Charlie didn’t respond with much more of a mumble, but her attention came up quickly toward the direction of the voice. A reflexive response with no room for thought had Charlie searching the darkness of a park bench, squinting from a lack of glasses that she hadn’t worn in days.
The sun was hurrying over the backs of the hills and a woman sat in the shade it created on the mountain side street. Charlie hesitated, contemplating a conversation before deciding that chatting it up with a random stranger on a park bench shrouded in darkness probably wasn’t the wisest decision. A cold chill went up her spine as she realized that the streetlamp beside the stranger did nothing to illuminate that darkness. She turned to walk away, but the stranger’s sharp laugh paralyzed her.
“Don’t go, human.” Human, she said. “Tell me why you’re so angry.”
Charlie felt every hair on her body stand on end. She made a mistake. She spoke to a monster. Even without an instrument in her hands she was unable to avoid them. Trying not to panic, Charlie pulled her hands from her pockets and made a quick decision. She couldn’t waste time on whether it was the right or wrong thing to do.
It was the wrong thing to do.
In seconds the creature was in front of her, a tall, feminine shadow with a clay mask that resembled a beautiful woman. Yellow eyes glowed eerily through the small holes in the masks irises as she loomed over Charlie, reaching her inhumanly long limbs out as if to call forth all of the shadows in the world.
“I thought it would be fun to talk to a human, but you’re no fun at all.” Her voice was pleasant and playful but her words were somehow even scarier than any threat Charlie had ever heard. “You need to lighten up! Come now, let’s play a game.”
“Wh-what kind of game?” Charlie silently cursed herself for stuttering, sure this creature could now see her fear as clearly as she could see her own breath. The clay mask drew closer to wide whiskey eyes, but the poor girl couldn’t look away.
“If you can stay awake for five days then I will disappear.”
“And if I can’t?” A shivering breath puffed out onto the beautiful mask and Charlie told herself it was from the cold.
“Then I get to eat you.” The mask was unmoving, but the sound of a smile was clear in her tone. As it drew closer Charlie began to notice the textured lines of handcrafted porcelain despite her bad eyesight. It was looming over her as if it had forgotten the unreasonable game it had only just suggested in favor of swallowing her whole right at that moment.
Charlie was paralyzed, eyes hypnotized on the antique face while her legs shook with the urge to run. She had to think of something to say to get out of this situation, but she was powerless. It wasn’t in her nature to avoid the things in front of her but even with only the last few years as practice avoiding them, Charlie had never been this close to something that wasn’t human. She realized that she had never spoken with one. She had, at the most, only ever danced with one while her mouth stayed otherwise preoccupied by some instrument. In all of those years there had never been an opportunity to learn anything about them or whether they were good or evil.
“Staring off into space again, freak?” Came a deep voice from behind her.
Clear blue eyes met with brown as Charlie turned slowly. She recognized the voice, somehow always relating back to a much lighter version of it when it spoke to her more often. It wasn’t a voice she liked to run into as it always referred to her with the same amount of contempt as the icy eyes attached to it. She didn’t answer him, looking quickly back to the creature.
“Okay,” Charlie finally spoke. “Until five days are up, you have to stay at least five feet away from me at all times.”
The creature faltered, the growing shadows around it retreating slowly as it took what may have been a step or two back. Without feet, there was no way to be sure. The mask was a constant blank expression, but she was still close enough that Charlie could see the smile in its eyes. The two of them stared silently at each other as the boy behind Charlie shoved his hands into his jeans and walked passed her with an irritated click of his tongue.
“Who would want to be within five feet of you anyway?” He shot back menacingly, but the girl couldn’t be offended. In a way she had used him for courage, his very human presence bringing her back to reality where she could feel her feet on the ground, steady and real. Monsters didn’t exist in the reality that was seen by his clear blue eyes and, for a moment, Charlie tried to see the world like that too.
“Very well,” the mask said. “I guess humans can be fun after all.”
The sun was still doing its best to crawl out of the sky and the once dark park bench was basking in the light of the street-lamp. In some space of time that the poor teen couldn’t recall, the masked woman had retreated, leaving her alone on an empty street. Charlie slouched in a mixture of relief and dread as she turned back toward her house, trying her damnedest to ignore the laughter that echoed against the lonely mountainside.
“Don’t fall asleep, human.” The voice called to her, and as Charlie picked up her pace into a run she began to hope that she really was crazy.