Daphne's Book
Rebecca Carvalho

Dedicated to Michael.

Chapter 1
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Daphne Chase rested her forehead on the window. The cadence of the bus, summed up with her low spirits, left her drowsy. She soon fell into a half awake, half asleep state of mind.

She could hear her father telling stories, his tone of voice going up to emphasize certain words and build up climax, like an actor excitedly reciting a monologue. Her mother's and brothers' laughter completed the chorus. They were happy together. Happy without her.

Daphne could hardly understand what her father was saying, and was eager to join her mother and brothers in praising his genius. A type of eagerness that was more out of obligation than genuine interest. Her father was Abelard Chase. The famous author, hero of his generation. She listened, and listened, and when she thought she had discerned the word 'ridiculous', she was pulled back from them with a jolt.

The bus had stopped and the lights were on. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to that sudden brightness. She blinked, confused, and tried to pick up here and there bits of what her fellow passengers said.

“This is ridiculous,” the man sitting next to her murmured to himself as he rummaged in his backpack. He found his cell phone and dialed a number, his fingers pressing each button with discontent. A quick glance at his wristwatch showed that it was almost 9:00 in the evening.

When he started complaining on the phone that he would be late, Daphne's attention shifted to the two women in the seats in front of her. “Maybe we should call a cab,” she heard one of them say. That was alarming. Why did we stop?

A little boy started crying. His screaming left her anxious.

People got up to leave. They wanted to get outside, even though they hadn't arrived in Middleton yet. That couldn't be the stop. But, then, how could she know? That was her first time traveling by bus to a different town. She was on her way to freedom.

Confused, Daphne mechanically grabbed her backpack and stood up on the corridor waiting for the passengers to move. The line was long, the kid was wailing, and the lights inside the bus were too bright to let Daphne take a peek at the world outside. She didn't know what to do, but nevertheless followed the others.

She had just stepped out of the bus, when the bus driver – a scrawny, nervous looking man – announced that the bus had really broken down and he couldn't fix it. Daphne saw on his name-tag that his name was Ennio Calisto.

A group of particularly tall women surrounded him and dangerously waved their bags at his face. They complained that he had to do something, or else. Trembling and stammering, he told them he had already called the bus company. Another bus was on its way to pick them up. His life was then spared. Visibly sweating, the poor man then occupied the next thirty minutes with handing luggage back to their owners.

It was cold, and Daphne wished she could go back in the bus, but all the passengers were outside and she didn't want to be different. Woods were at each side of the road, and everyone seemed to think that sitting by the trees was a good way to pass the time as they waited. Daphne, then, hauled her briefcase away from the bus, and sat on it by a tree.

She thought it strange that there were no other vehicles on the road. But, then, Middleton was a small town. It was like no one else in the world wanted to go that way. That's, in fact, why she had chosen it.

People started forming small groups. Some of them were smoking, and the smell of tobacco and wet wood left her sleepy, again. Even the bus driver had joined a group and was then joking about his bad luck. Daphne was alone, and that strange cramp she got at the bottom of her stomach, something she felt whenever she realized she was the only one who still hadn't socialized, started to kick in.

She tried to overhear their chatting.

The group closest to her, one with three short, plump ladies, debated whether it was best to cook scrambled eggs on a frying pan or in the microwave. Daphne didn't think her opinion would interest those ladies, since her family's kitchen was terra incognita for her.

Another one, this one with two men and a tough looking woman, talked about tattoos. They showed the tattoos they had with pride, and seemed oblivious to everything else that didn't have ink on. Daphne didn't think that fountain pen ink stains on her fingers counted.

There was, also, a couple sitting on the same suitcase and humming a song together. But it was better to avoid looking at them.

Finally, Daphne found a group discussing politics. They looked civilized enough. Joining them, perhaps, wouldn't hurt. She took a deep breath, and confidently stood up.

“I don't think teenagers should have the right to vote,” she overheard one of the men say.

Daphne sat back on her luggage and sighed. It was, at least for the moment, safer to remain alone.

She rested her chin on her hands, elbows on her knees, and looked at the woods nearby. She let her mind go blank and remained staring with eyes that didn't focus on anything in particular, until she realized there was someone standing behind a tree. At first, she thought it had to be one of the passengers, and looked away. She looked down at her shoes for a few minutes, bored, touching a few rocks with the tips of her already dirty sneakers, when a thought crossed her mind. She quickly looked back at the tree, but nobody was there.

“I wonder,” she murmured to herself.

Had he had followed her all the way from Lavinia?

“Daphne?” She heard someone say, but didn't bother looking back. She knew that none of her acquaintances would be there, and spared herself from finding out that the person was addressing another Daphne. “Daphne Chase, from Lavinia?” He insisted.

Lavinia was her hometown. Daphne turned immediately, her heart racing.

A tall boy then pulled his luggage closer to hers and sat on it.

“Benjamin?” She asked instinctively, although she knew exactly who he was.

Benjamin Wallace was Daphne's old high school's academic adviser's son. Although they had never talked with each other, she had known him since they were kids. In fact, her first memories of him were from kindergarten. He had always been a very quiet, polite kid, very good with numbers. Throughout high school, his manners always struck Daphne as shy.

“Yes,” he said, stretching out a hand to greet her.

She shook his hand feeling a little awkward.

“What are you doing here?” She asked a little confused.

“I'm going to McAdams College,” he said with a smile. “Yeah, my mom told me you'd be going to McAdams too. We were going to call you yesterday to check if you needed a ride. She was going to drive me, but her car broke. So, I took the bus. And now this happens. I guess I'm just that unlucky.”

“Oh, Okay. Well, thanks, anyway,” she said. It was funny to think that Ben Wallace, even though they weren't friends, had her phone number. Well, her adviser was the one who did, but since they were related it meant that through osmosis Ben had her number as well.

She blushed, and averted her eyes. She waited for him to leave. But he didn't. Instead, Ben remained where he was and quietly observed the people talking nearby. She didn't know what else to say to him, and felt bad. His presence wasn't that disagreeable, it's just that he reminded her of her hometown. And, thinking of her hometown, she thought of her father.

“Do you know what actually happened?” He asked.

His sudden question started her.


“Do you know what happened to the bus?”

“Oh. Um, no. The bus driver didn't say, I guess.”

They were quiet, again.

Bright headlights in the beginning of the road brought a tense excitement to the people waiting. Some stood up, while others simply craned their necks to get a better view. The headlights soon proved to belong to a car. The man driving the car wanted to know if people were all right and left when he heard they were just waiting for a bus to pick them up.

Daphne and Ben exchanged a nervous look. They wanted to leave. It was strange sitting there, surrounded by woods, in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, that was a bright night. The moon was full up in that cloudless sky and it helped that the bus lights were still on. But, still, it wasn't like they felt safe there.

“I don't think we're too far from Middleton,” Ben said.

For a second, Daphne pictured herself hauling her luggage down the road all the way to Middleton. She was tired, her stomach was burning with anxiety and hunger, and she was feeling too restless to wait. She was ready to start walking if someone suggested the idea.

“Maybe we should go on foot, then,” she joked.

Ben raised his eyebrows, surprised, and stood up.

“Shall we go now?” He asked her.

It was Daphne's turn to raise her eyebrows.

“Go where? To Middleton? We can't!”

“Why not?”

“Because we'd get lost?”

Ben smiled. “I don't think we'd have to worry about getting lost. We just go that way to reach Middleton. And I don't think there are any turns to make. And it helps that it's actually not that far.”

“How do you know?” Daphne asked. Ben then sat beside her once again and leaned closer to her shoulder. Daphne blushed, but concentrated on keeping a straight face as Ben used his cell phone's GPS to show a map of where they were. Middleton, like he had said, really wasn't that far.

“See, I think we could walk to Middleton,” he said and smiled again. His teeth glistened, reflecting the bus lights.

He always smiled a lot. She now remembered that. More than once, she had overheard the school librarian, an old lady who smelled like parchment and old books, commenting with fellow staff what a nice boy he was.

She thought so, too. But what impressed her the most was his willingness to accept her crazy idea, when it had only been one of these things she said only to make her ego, which was most of the time cowardly, feel better.

Daphne was ready to give him an excuse, but her words choked in her throat. A woman started crying that her little boy had disappeared.

“My son! Did you see my son?” The lady yelled for everyone to hear. Her fingers were tightly closed around her hair, which she was pretending to brush off her forehead, but seemed on the verge of yanking it off in despair.

The passengers gathered around the woman trying to calm her and asking questions about her kid. Daphne had seen him earlier that day, when he hopped on the bus holding that woman's hand. That had been around two hours after the bus left Lavinia.

She remembered thinking that the lady, no older than twenty, looked too young to be a mother.

“He was here. I might have fallen asleep for a minute and he left,” she sobbed.

Daphne wanted to help, but she didn't know how to reach that woman. Other passengers were talking with her and assured they would find her kid, who turned out to be called Andre Molina. She introduced herself as Tammy Molina.

Tammy told them that she was afraid Andre had gone into the woods, and the thought of it made her cry even more bitterly.

The passengers immediately divided themselves into groups to go search for him in the woods. The bus driver wanted to go, but the passengers decided that he should stay by the road in case the other bus arrived while they were searching. An old lady holding a cane, also, stayed behind, since her sore legs didn't let her join the rescue team.

Shyly, Daphne started following the group of people closest to her. But, before entering the woods, she instinctively looked back. Ben was closely following her.

They stopped and looked at each other. She felt she had to say something to him, but didn't know what. That sudden alliance between them deserved acknowledgment, even if it was just a polite glance or a subtle nod.

“Be careful,” he told her, finally.

Daphne felt more at ease.

“You too,” she said, and grabbed the small flashlight she had hanging from her key chain. Ben took his cell phone and used it to shed light on the way.

Daphne's heart was racing as she wondered what her family would say if they could see her now. No, they simply couldn't hear a word of it. She gave her head a little shake to concentrate on her mission, took a deep breath, and entered the woods.

Chapter 2
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Daphne heard the passengers' cries at random intervals. They had taken different paths and cried out Andre's name as loud as they could, but no cry was more powerful and distinct than Tammy's, whose sorrowful intonation could be heard miles away. It was like a lioness in search of her cub.

It was dark and cold in the woods, and the ground was uneven and slippery. Daphne felt awkward jumping over bushes and fallen logs, opening up space through branches. It was like being in a book. She had dreamed about leaving Lavinia and finally living a life that wasn't tied to Abelard's mercurial nature. Strangely, she felt uneasy there.

Despite the way she felt, she had to help find Andre. She felt sick to her stomach just at the thought of him alone in the woods. He was so little and helpless.

They continued walking until Daphne's flash light died. She cursed as she in vain tried to turn it on again. Losing her only source of light gave her a strange sense of abandonment.

A rustling noise to her left was so startling that it felt like all blood had drained from her body. Daphne stood there, frozen, squinting at the bushes. Moonlight went through the tree tops, producing pools of light here and there on the ground, but it wasn't enough to let her see what lurked there.

“Are you Okay?” Ben asked. He was a little behind, and quickly approached Daphne holding his cell phone up. The bluish beam of light reflected on his light blond hair made him look ghostly.

“Did you hear that?” She whispered.

“No. You heard something?” He whispered back, alarmed, and pointed his cell phone's light at a few directions. There were only trees. And a few annoyed owls perched on branches. Their amber eyes reflecting light back in a stern, don't-point-that-thing-at-me look.

“I – I think I did.”

“What was it?” He asked her, still holding his cell phone up.

“I don't know.”

“Whatever it was, I don't think it could have been an animal,” he said after a while. “Maybe one of the passengers was nearby.”

“What makes you say that?”

Without answering her question, Ben turned his cell phone's light off. They were both quiet for a minute. So quiet that they could hear the rhythm of their breathing.

“If it was an animal, it would have attacked us by now,” Ben finally said. “Unless. . .”

His pause scared her. “Unless what?” She asked, anxious.

“Unless it was an inoffensive bunny,” he said in a more jovial manner, and she couldn't help laughing.

Daphne was so inexperienced in taking strolls in the woods, that her imagination was starting to play tricks on her. It had to be a bunny, or some other little, harmless animal.

They were ready to continue looking for Andre, when a sudden, distant cry made them jump back in fear. A human cry.

“The boy?” Ben said under his breath, and his suspicion was enough for them to sprint toward the source of the crying.

The terrain gradually became more, and more steep as they entered deeper in the woods. At first, Daphne and Ben tried to go down on their own, but the ground was so muddy that he lost his balance and slipped. Daphne shrieked and quickly grabbed his hand before he could have fallen, firmly holding on to a tree trunk.

“Are you all right?” She asked him, panting.

“Yeah, I am. Thanks,” he said. Daphne, though, could feel that he was trembling, but forbore mentioning it.

Still holding hands, they continued running down the slope.

The crying restarted and this time it was more audible. There were, also, splashing noises. A rush of adrenaline went through Daphne's body.

“The boy is drowning!” She shouted.

She thought of her own little brothers swimming in the river that crossed the family's grounds, and to imagine that something could happen to them now that she would not be around to watch them play was tormenting. She needed to find Andre, before a tragedy occurred.

Feeling that every inch of her was ready to save the boy, Daphne ran faster than she had ever ran in her life, closely followed by Ben. They ran until they reached the border of a clearing in the woods, where a pearly lake could be seen reflecting the moon. She squinted her eyes to understand what was in the water, and was about to shout Andre's name when Ben released her hand and immediately covered her mouth.

Daphne instinctively struggled, all her nerves emitting alert signals and confused thoughts invading her mind. Daphne could not understand why Ben behaved that way, why he wouldn't let her go save Andre's life.

She grabbed his wrist and tried to pull his hand away from her face, but Ben proved to be stronger than her. She kicked and pushed, but only when he whispered “it's not the boy,” she froze and he finally let go of her.

“I'm really sorry,” he whispered in a mortified manner. “Listen – It's not the boy. Look over there. They are swimming.”

She took a few steps forward and stood behind a tree. What had sounded like crying noises was, in reality, laughter. Daphne noticed two figures swimming in the lake side by side. She could hardly understand their silhouettes, but she was certain those were a man and a woman. Their bodies glistened in the moonlight and made them look like mythological figures, water elementals celebrating the full moon and enchanting Daphne's eyes. They laughed in their embrace, and their laughter offended her.

Daphne's face and neck burned with shame. Feeling increasingly disgusted, she abruptly stepped back, accidentally bumping into Ben. That unexpected physical contact made Daphne push him away. She could not see him well, now that his cell phone was off, but the faint moon glow was enough to let her notice that his expression was very surprised.

“I'm so sorry,” he said and raised his hand as if to show he wasn't a threat to her.

Daphne's heart was racing and she felt a little queasy.

“Please, can we go back to the bus?” She asked in a weak voice.

That adventure was over. She couldn't endure it any longer.

Ben nodded and they promptly left the woods. They were silent on the way back to the bus. Daphne rummaged in her mind for good excuses to say to Ben, but all apologies got stuck in her throat. She could tell that Ben was, who now and then opened his mouth and closed it again as if trying to find the best words, desperately looking for ways to approach her. All his attempts, though, were in vain, since Daphne strategically pretended to be looking away when he seemed ready to speak.

When they finally reached the road, they noticed that the other bus – very bright and packed with passengers – had already arrived and was parked behind their broken bus, which now had the lights off. The recently arrived bus driver was talking with Mr. Calisto.

The second Mr. Calisto saw them, he anxiously stood up in expectation to see Andre Molina. When he noticed the boy wasn't with them, he sighed audibly.

“No signs of the boy?” He asked gloomily. Daphne could not tell, though, whether his melancholy came from Andre's disappearance or from his anxiety at having the other bus driver looking impatient next to him.

“No, sorry,” Ben said. “The others are still looking for him,” he added.

Daphne went straight to her belongings and took a water bottle from her backpack. She drank water vigorously, inventing an inexistent thirst in order to calm her nerves. She hoped Ben would have understood that she needed some time on her own, but the moment she turned on her heel she almost bumped against him.

“May I talk with you?” He asked hesitantly.

“Um – Sure.”

“I – I really don't know what I've done. Have I done something wrong? I'm really sorry if I offended you.”

“No, you didn't offend me,” she said.

Daphne rubbed her forehead feeling impatient with herself. She didn't know why, but seeing that couple swimming together had awaken in her something she didn't recognize. Something she could barely describe. She could only feel it, and she felt repulsed by it. It scared her.

“So, what happened?” Ben asked anxiously. “I'm sorry, but I still think I've offended you somehow. Was it because I covered your mouth? I'm sorry if that was too abrupt. I'm sorry if I hurt you. But it was the only way at that moment to keep you from getting the attention of those people swimming.”

“I know,” Daphne said carelessly. All she wanted was to be alone. “I forgot something on the bus,” she lied, and slipped away from him.

She hopped on the bus just in time to let the first tear escape. She walked to the back of the bus painfully trying to restrain her feelings; but, as soon as she sat in the back, a wave of destructive thoughts crushed any hopes she had of staying in control of herself. Daphne, sitting in the dark, wept.

What was I thinking? I shouldn't have left. Chris and Kyle will end up dying if I don't go back. How am I going to survive here, alone? Dad was right. There's nothing here for me. And. . . and that boy. . . he'll think I'm stupid for behaving like a prude. I should go back home. But I can't. I'm not done with my book. I need to write this book. Then. . . But. . . What if I can't write? I couldn't write it at home. . .

“You're such an idiot,” she sobbed, and aggressively tried to wipe off the tears with the back of her hands.

“Why are you crying?” A little voice coming from the neighboring seats on the left asked her.

Daphne gasped, caught off guard. For a second, she thought of Ben. But the voice was too juvenile. Ben, on the other hand, had a distinct deep tone that made him sound older than the 18-year-old he was.

“Why are you crying?” The voice asked again. He leaned forward in his seat. Like a beacon in the sky, the moonlight lit up his face. The boy blinked, sleepy, and his youthful features showed genuine concern and kind support.

Daphne's heart skipped a beat.

“Andre?” She asked anxiously.

“Yes,” he said and yawned, his round face gaining multiple dimples.

“We've been looking for you!” She said.

Chapter 3
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When Daphne told Mr. Calisto that Andre Molina was on the bus, he was so overjoyed and relieved that he entered the woods screaming to the wind that the boy had been found.

The other bus driver, a tall man with a large mustache, raised his hands to the sky.

Daphne and Ben went back in the bus to talk with Andre, who was more and more aware of the commotion outside.

He refused to leave the bus.

“Am I in trouble?” He asked Daphne and grabbed her hand the same way her brother Chris would have done to seek support. “I heard mommy screaming. Is she mad at me?”

“No, don't worry. Your mother will be happy to see you,” Daphne assured him.

“I wanted to fix the bus,” he said, his round, black eyes starting to tear up.

It turned out that Andre Molina slipped away from his mother the moment she fell asleep and went back to the bus hoping he could fix it, like he fixed his toys at home. Everyone had been so distracted chatting, that they didn't notice him walking away from Tammy.

Once Andre realized he couldn't fix the bus, he curled up under a seat and fell asleep. He did hear everyone shouting out his name, but was then too afraid he was in trouble.

Daphne took him in her ams and carried him outside. The lollipop Ben gave him highly improved his confidence.

Soon enough, the passengers walked out of the woods. One by one, they greeted Andre, surround Daphne and Ben in a close circle.

They asked her over and over how and where she had found him, and even called her heroine of the day. All the time Ben proudly stood next to her.

“I thought I had left my scarf on the bus and went back to pick it up, then I found him sleeping in the back,” Daphne told them, and prayed Andre wouldn't mention he had seen her crying.

“When I turned the lights off I didn't see him. . . and all along he was hiding under a that seat!” Mr. Calisto added, and scratched his head whenever he said the same rehearsed words.

Daphne was telling the same lie for the twentieth time, when Tammy Molina finally arrived. Everyone quickly opened space for her, and Tammy ran into the circle.

Watching Tammy approach gave Daphne goosebumps. Her red curls flew behind her, and the tears streaming down her face reflected the moonlight, marking her cheeks with stars.

When Daphne passed the boy to her, she noticed that Tammy's entire body was trembling. She had never seen anybody moved by that much emotion. Abelard had showed many signs of feverish feelings in various circumstances, but his emotions were always drunken rather than naturally passionate.

“Andre,” Tammy sobbed and squeezed the kid against her as if in a desperate attempt to attach him to herself, so she would never lose sight of him again. “Where were you?”

“In the bus,” he said with a weak voice.

“Didn't you hear mommy calling your name?”

“I did, mommy,” he said, already crying.

“Why didn't you say 'I'm here'?”

But Andre didn't want to talk about it and buried his face in her hair. Tammy stopped insisting. She was satisfied to have him back.

After the passengers self-indulged in telling and retelling their own adventures in the woods, they were rushed by the other bus driver, who introduced himself as Mr. John Girvin, to hop on the bus. They were too far behind on the schedule and his passengers were already beyond impatience.

Annoyed, the passengers squeezed their luggages in the already packed luggage compartment, and tried to find seats on the now overly crowded bus.

Dissent, as expected, started when Mr. Girvin hastened them again to sit down. They didn't, though, feel very inclined to follow the commands of a stranger.

Almost nobody from the loyal group of Andre's rescuers was able to sit together and found it impossible to befriend their new insensible seat neighbors. The bus had barely moved an inch when they noticed Mr. Calisto was standing outside by the broken bus.

“Mr. Calisto!” A woman cried from her seat, alarming the other passengers. “Why is Mr. Calisto not coming with us? Stop this bus. Stop this bus!”

The bus, however, didn't stop.

The woman, who was very tall and corpulent, stood up annoyed. She was right in front of Daphne's seat, and Daphne thought she looked like a mountain covered by a gigantic floral sheet.

“Why isn't this man stopping? Stop this bus!” She yelled and one by one the passengers from the broken bus joined her in the stop this bus chorus. Even shy Daphne, feeling awkward, joined them.

Although he had to, they didn't want to leave him behind, alone, in the dark.

The chanting progressed louder.

Annoyed by the noise, Mr. Girvin gave in and stopped the bus. Laughter and claps exploded among the protesting passengers, and a few of them ran to the bus door, which Mr. Girvin opened unwillingly.

“Do you think this is a joke? I have my passengers to drive to Silver Creek!” He yelled, but they ignored his words.

“Man, why aren't you coming with us?” A young man asked Mr. Calisto from the door.

“Don't stay on your own here!” Another man told him.

Mr. Calisto ran to talk with them. Panting, he explained that he could not leave the broken bus. He had to wait for the towing vehicle to pull it to the closest bus depot. He was visibly flattered by their unexpected loyalty. Puffing up his rickety chest, he stood outside looking like a proud soldier.

“We mustn't leave!” An old woman announced from her seat, and banged her cane on the floor of the bus. “This man will be eaten alive by bears if we leave him behind.”

“Or brutally killed by assassins!” An old man said gravely, and banged his cane on the floor as well.

Some of Mr. Girvin's passengers laughed, offending Mr. Calisto's passengers. For a second, there was a silent war of who could make the best angry faces, but Mr. Girvin interrupted them.

“Enough!” He yelled, and abruptly closed the door. The two men standing by it jumped back.

Annoyed, one of them – a tall, athletic young man – leaned over and turned the engine off.

“What the heck?” Mr. Girvin shouted at him, and the guy then pulled the keys and ran away to the back of the bus.

Mr. Calisto's passengers cheered and clapped vigorously. It was like they had just watched their favorite team score.

“Go Jesse!” The woman sitting in front of Daphne cheered, when he ran past her.\

Jesse raised his arms, celebrating his own doing. He had barely reached the last row of seats when he suddenly tripped.

Daphne's mouth fell open. She was certain someone had tripped him on purpose, since the group of passengers next to him – all of them were Mr. Girvin's – were wildly laughing and giving significant looks to one another. Jesse, who had banged his head on a seat when he fell, was a little disoriented as he tried to get up.

“My baby!” The corpulent woman in front of Daphne said in grief, and in a very uncoordinated manner tried to reach her son.

“Give me back those keys, you thief!” Mr. Girvin yelled right behind her.

The woman slowly turned to him. Everyone gasped. Her face was distorted with anger and every inch of her body seemed to be emitting waves of wrath.

“Who are you calling thief?” She asked him.

Mr. Girvin understood right away he was in danger and stepped back.

“Are you referring to my son? My son, you Mr. Nobody, is a saint! All he did was to help that poor man from being left behind by a monster like you!” She said, her fat forefinger pointed at Mr. Girvin, who looked at it as worried as if he was facing a gun.

Mr. Calisto's passengers cheered once again.

Daphne couldn't help laughing when she saw Jesse lose his balance. His mother bent over him. As he outstretched a hand to reach her, she carelessly took the keys from him and looked back at Mr. Girvin. Without support, the boy then fell on his face one more time.

That had to be the most hilarious experience she had ever lived.

The back of the bus, watching everything closely, burst into laughter. Even Daphne continued laughing, but covered her mouth with her hands. She felt guilty. Finding the situation funny felt like she was betraying her allegiance.

“Here are your keys, Mister,” the woman said. Mr. Girvin clasped them, trembling. “Now listen to what I am going to say: this bus is not going anywhere until the towing truck gets here. Do you understand what I'm saying? We're going to wait here with Mr. Calisto,” she added, and her words left Mr. Calisto's passengers exhilarated.

A man stood up by one of the front seats and started booing.

“Shut up, fat lady. Let's go to Silver Creek, bus driver!” He shouted.

Half of the bus gasped, and the other half cheered.

Before he could get himself into trouble again, Mr. Girvin darted away to his seat.

“Did you just call me fat?” The woman yelled, her long earrings dangling from her ears back and forth as she dangerously approached the man who insulted her. Daphne thought she looked like a mad bull.

“Yes, I did. Are you insane, woman? If you and your people don't want to go, then leave the bus. We need to get to Silver Creek. We're already doing you guys a favor to drop you off at Middleton,” he said calmly, but the woman still was thinking about the way he had addressed her, since she unexpectedly took off one of her shoes and threw it at him.

The shoe, bright red, flew up toward him like a rocket. His neighbor was lucky and ducked just in time, and the shoe struck him full in the face. The man stumbled, confused, accidentally hitting his back on the window behind him.

Most passengers covered their mouths with their hands. Daphne's heart was beating fast as she waited apprehensively to see what would happen next. Nobody wanted to interfere in that increasingly dangerous divergence for fear they would become the next victims of the red shoe.

Daphne looked back at the woman's son. He had finally found a way to stand up. To her horror, though, he was bleeding from the mouth. Wide-eyed, she looked at the red stream flowing down his chin. He used the back of his hand to wipe off the blood. When he opened his mouth to clean the excess of blood, Daphne noticed he had lost half a front tooth. She looked around, and saw that most passengers looked hypnotized by hatred against each other.

Daphne then knew she had to find a way out before she got sucked into the same madness.

Her attention shifted back to the man who had been struck by the woman's shoe. His left eyebrow was starting to bleed. As soon as he returned from the state of confusion in which he was, he aggressively took off one of his shoes and paid the injury the same way. Daphne was barely able to see what happened to the woman. All passengers, incensed by the first real opportunity to vent their frustration, stood up and started throwing whatever objects their hands could find at each other.

Old, young, men, women, all passengers engaged in an insane war.

Daphne slipped away from her seat, scared, and tried to dodge the objects that went by flying as she rushed toward the exit. A man, however, tried punching another, though lost his balance and accidentally pushed her, who tripped and fell on someone nearby.

“Oh, I'm really sorry!” She said, and struggled to stand up. She was aware that she could be making someone very angry at her.

“That's all right, Daphne,” said a familiar voice behind her. She turned and was surprised to find out she had fallen on Ben.

He was holding his backpack up as a shield. Tammy Molina was behind him, nervous, holding Andre. The little boy was crying in a low voice. Without thinking twice, Daphne quickly pulled her backpack and joined Ben in protecting Tammy's son.

“I have to get my son out of this place!” Tammy cried.

Reaching the door, though, seemed impossible. A group of men were grappling nearby, blocking the corridor. All that was left was to shield Andre from any objects flying his way as they waited for the first opportunity to escape.

Daphne, from her position on the front, noticed Mr. Girvin quarreling with the other man who had tried to convince Mr. Calisto to hop on. Mr. Girvin's eyes looked like they were about to jump out of his face as he commanded the other man to stay away from him, and they started wrestling in the most uncoordinated manner. When his aggressor slipped, Mr. Girvin freed himself from him and anxiously stumbled to open the bus door. As soon as the door opened, Mr. Girvin left the bus running and screaming.

Finding the door open, Mr. Calisto hopped on and shouted “stop fighting!” in a high-pitched voice, though in a very powerful manner. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, their punches freezing in the air.

He took a few steps forward, his chest going up and down as he tried to control his breathing, and pulled a water bottle from a man's hand before he could hit another passenger on the head. Visibly angry, he threw it over his shoulder without looking back. The bottle almost caught Mr. Girvin.

Mr. Calisto looked at them with a disappointed expression, when Andre's now audible crying caught his attention. He leaned forward and outstretched his arms to the boy. Tammy then passed Andre to him somewhat unwillingly.

“Are you all mad?” He yelled, protectively holding Andre in his arms. The boy cried even louder.

Tammy Molina motioned to get her son back, but Ben asked her to wait a little. She looked uncertain, but stayed seated.

“What's wrong with you people? Why were you attacking each other like crazy animals? You were risking this child's life! He was crying all this time, but I ask you if you noticed him. No, you were too busy fighting each other over nothing. Over what? Yes, you tell me. Oh, you can't say a word. Let me tell you, then. You were killing each other like beasts because you're too selfish,” he said.

“We – we just –,” a woman said.

Mr. Calisto cut in. “Tried to wait with me until the bus got towed? Why didn't you step out of the bus, then, and simply let Mr. Girvin drive his passengers to Silver Creek? That poor man was just trying to do his job!”

Andre continued crying. And Mr. Calisto continued lecturing.

“And now he is gone. What am I going to do with you? I can't just go looking for him and leave you here. I have a fellow bus driver missing, a broken down bus and another bus full of passengers to drive to two different locations. How am I going to solve this? If I leave you here and go looking for Mr. Girvin, I'll lose my job. If I drive this bus and leave the broken down behind, I'll lose my job the same way!”

Andre was already kicking him.

Mr. Calisto was surprised when Ben suddenly stood up. He calmly passed his backpack to Daphne. “The boy, Sir?” He asked, and Mr. Calisto handed Andre to him with a confused expression. Ben, then, gave the struggling boy back to his mother, who held him eagerly concentrated on trying to soothe his anger, but without forgetting to acknowledge Ben's help. She gave him an affable look that made him visibly blush.

Daphne looked from Tammy to Ben, and frowned. She didn't know why, but she felt awkward.

Mr. Calisto shook his head to clear his thoughts, and after scratching his chin vigorously, he took his cell pone and said to the person on the other side what had happened to Mr. Girvin and that he could not wait anymore.

He wanted to drive the replacement coach himself, and leave the broken bus behind. The person Mr. Calisto was talking with probably yelled at him, since he winced and turned the cell phone off abruptly and ran to the driver's seat.

He didn't have to say a word. Everyone quickly ran back to their seats, and sat looking tense like students who had just been caught doing mischief in the classroom.

Daphne handed Ben's backpack back to him. When he held it, she noticed he had a cut on the back of his hand. Blood was still wet, but the wound didn't seem to be bothering him.

“Is it hurting?” She asked a little alarmed.

Ben, however, was distracted talking with Tammy and making silly faces to amuse Andre, and didn't hear her question. Daphne didn't ask it again and briskly walked away back to her seat afraid he would notice she had addressed him at all.

The trip to Middleton was gloomy and silent. Nobody, after all that had happened, dared say a word, much less look at neighboring passengers. When they arrived in Middleton, it was already very late. The streets of that old town were already empty. The passengers quickly disembarked, got their luggage, and vanished from each other's lives.

Daphne was exhausted. Coming to Middleton was starting to feel like a bad idea, but Daphne had to go on. Little she knew that incidents like the fight in the bus was only the beginning of a string of the strangest events and misfortunes.

Chapter 4
Abstract chapter design

Daphne reached for a piece of paper in her pocket. Squinting her eyes, she read the words College Avenue on it. That's where she would find McAdams College. She was nervous, and even scared. After taking a deep breath, she started to walk straight ahead on the hope to find College Avenue soon.

“Daphne, wait!” Ben yelled, startling her. She thought he had already left.

She turned unwillingly. He went toward her with some difficulty as he hauled an exaggerated number of suitcases. She looked at him, puzzled, but soon realized what was going on when she noticed that Tammy Molina was a little behind him only carrying Andre, who was fast asleep in her arms.

“Are you going to McAdams now?” He asked Daphne, panting.

Daphne looked from Tammy to Ben and felt a little uneasy. She rubbed her forehead abruptly and accidentally bumped her hand into her glasses, which almost fell, luckily stopping on the tip of her nose.

“Yes. I am,” she said, and blushed.

Ben smiled, and she felt terrible.

“Do you want to go together?”

“Um. . . Sure. Why not?” She lied.

“Great,” Ben said with a smile. “Oh, and Tammy needed some help with her luggage. We'll walk her to her house and then go to McAdams. If that's not inconvenient, of course.”

Why is he helping her? It's so late. Can't she just go on her own?

“Sure!” Daphne said and mentally kicked herself for accepting to go with them. She was tired, her legs were sore and her spirits were low. All she wanted at that moment was to get in bed and sleep. But Ben looked like he still wanted to apologize for what had happened in the woods between them, and she felt guilty.

All she could do was to stay around him until her presence convinced him that, really, apologies were not necessary.

Tammy turned to her as if looking at something very curious. Daphne stared at her shoes feeling awkward.

“I don't want to be a bother,” Tammy said, looking at Ben once again. Daphne thought that her tone was strangely melodious and somewhat raspy. It was too breathy, and every word seemed carefully weighed.

“You're not a bother,” Ben said promptly and Tammy gave him an extraordinarily large smile, her teeth glistening under the lamppost light.

Daphne thought that Tammy undoubtedly was a beautiful woman. She was tall and her wavy red hair gave her a fiery aura, which despite her thin figure made her look powerful. Her eyes were watery blue, and her nose was small and delicate. No matter how awkwardly shy Daphne felt around that girl, it was almost impossible to keep herself from admiring her beauty.

“All right, then. This way,” Tammy said, and Daphne and Ben followed her like two servants attending their Queen.

Middleton was a small town surrounded by woods. The houses were old and well built, with pretty gardens and jasmine bushes on every corner, and a high number of antique stores and small homemade food restaurants.

Although to most people Middleton wouldn't seem attractive, Daphne was more than pleased with her choice. She had lived her entire life in the countryside, following her father's wishes to keep the family away from the dangers of society. Although she appreciated the solitude provided by small communities, she also looked forward – though in the most nervous manner – to challenging herself in a different town.

A switch in environment was what she needed to finally be able to write her book.

Daphne looked around eager to see everything, almost desperate to absorb every inch of those streets in her memory. The more she walked, she got increasingly excited, and couldn't stop repeating in her mind that she would to do her best in that new town.

Despite her excitement, though, she felt awkward: on one hand, she saw before herself the possibility to start a new life. On the other hand, she was mortally afraid of the unknown, of getting herself in trouble for her inexperience regarding life away from home. It was like being a child on the first day at school.

She would be good, she thought to herself, and oddly enough was reminded of Queen Victoria's famous phrase. Queen Victoria had taken up royal responsibilities; but Daphne, although far from the mission to take care of an empire, knew that she needed all her strength to become the main ruler of her life and of the world within her head from that day on.

Abelard had governed her life for way too long.

On the way to Tammy's house, Daphne was lost in daydreams. In her distraction, she suddenly bumped into something. She had not noticed when Ben and Tammy, both of them had then been walking side by side ahead of her, stopped.

Daphne tripped over a big duffel bag. She almost fell, luckily finding her balance – though very ungraciously – just in time.

“Are you Okay?” Ben asked her.

“Yes, I'm fine,” Daphne said, a little embarrassed, and adjusted her ponytail on the pretext of occupying herself with something until the redness on her face went away.

“What is that woman doing?” Tammy murmured.

“Who's she?” Ben asked Tammy, intrigued.

Daphne squinted her eyes, and still could barely understand the small silhouette standing in front of an old looking two-story house.

“Her name is Esther Brown. She's a very strange woman,” Tammy said and glanced with hopeless eyes at the house ahead of her. “That's where I live. But with that woman standing right there, I can't go further.”

“What's the matter?” Ben asked.

What's the matter? That woman is dangerous!” Tammy whispered nervously and instinctively hugged Andre, who was asleep and unaware of his mother's worries.

Daphne frowned. How could a poor, curved old woman be dangerous? Time seemed to be already subjugating her and making her bow to it to show thankfulness for being alive, her own body betraying her wishes to live. Even poverty must have been in control of her for quite a long time, as she was dressed in ragged clothes that certainly didn't provide enough shelter from the cold. How could, then, a woman so cruelly kept under seize by her own unlucky destiny, be capable of doing any harm?

Ben seemed to share Daphne's impressions, for he kindly smiled – though careful not to offend Tammy – and assured her that nothing bad would happen.

“She is a witch!” Tammy told him, but in response he simply smiled again.

As he hauled her luggage toward the house, she nervously explained that the whole town thought the same way about Esther.

“I'm not kidding! That woman has a very wicked nature,” Tammy whispered to him, among other indelicate things about Esther, but Ben was good-natured enough to maintain his smile and encourage her to continue walking.

Tammy went on talking and pulling Ben's sleeve until they were near Esther, and the proximity shut Tammy's mouth and made her expression shift from desperation to stiff indifference. Daphne noticed, however, that Tammy's glistening eyes betrayed her attempt to portray coldness. Inside, Tammy was pure scorn.

Ben, contrary to Tammy, behaved like a perfect gentleman and even greeted Esther, bowing his head slightly. Esther, hugging herself as if she was either very cold or feeling very insecure, didn't notice, or simply refused to acknowledge, his greeting. In fact, she was in such state of torpor that it looked as if she saw no one around her, expect perhaps the ghosts to whom she muttered unintelligible words.

A few inches from Esther, firmly holding Andre with one arm, Tammy quickly tried to pull the latch of the fence that separated the garden from the sidewalk; but, unexpectedly, Esther woke from her trance, and with her cadaverous arms outstretched to Andre, dangerously threw herself to the kid. Tammy screamed like an animal, and skillfully dodged Esther to keep her from touching the child.

“Handsome boy. Such a handsome boy!” Esther exclaimed with her arms trembling.

“Get away from me!” Tammy yelled. Her face increasingly turned red with anger.

Daphne, surprised by Tammy's overreaction, didn't know what to do. Tammy's cry had been so penetrating, that she froze and remained glued to that cobblestone street with her heart beating fast. Even Ben, always ready to take the initiative to help, took a few seconds to understand what had happened. When he finally adjusted his thoughts, he placed himself between Tammy and Esther.

“Tammy, go inside the house, please,” he asked firmly, and pulled the latch for her.

Tammy, already in tears, followed his command and went into the garden. Andre was frightened after waking up in that scuffle, and occupied himself in crying and kicking in his mother's arms. Ben gave Daphne a significant look and ran to reach Tammy. He was visibly scared.

Daphne didn't know what to do, and mechanically grabbed the briefcases that were left behind. As she passed the strap of one of Tammy's bags over her shoulder, leaning forward to grab her belongings, Esther held her by the sides of her head.

Startled, Daphne lost her balance and fell on the bags. Esther bent over her and grabbed her shoulders. The old lady, whose eyes were black and very small, looked at her in such concentration that made her look like she was trying to read Daphne's soul. Her hair was totally white, almost silvery in the moonlight, and terribly tangled. Esther's face was covered with wrinkles and she had a long scar on her right cheek. Despite her physical appearance, Daphne wasn't afraid of her.

“Go away. Go home!” Esther whispered to her, displaying her yellow, crooked teeth. Her breath was the worst possible. “Go away, my kid!” She repeated more vehemently.

“But why?” Daphne asked her.

“You shouldn't be here. Go away. This place is very dangerous!” Esther yelled.

Noticing this new commotion, Ben hurried to help Daphne. When he found her on the ground, his face distorted into alarmed, angry features. Imagining that Esther had pushed Daphne, he ordered the woman to leave otherwise he would call the police. Esther protected her head with her hands and begged him not to send the police after her.

Esther was already leaving when, coming out of nowhere, Tammy attacked her and started to hysterically strike the old woman with her bag.

“I told you to leave, witch!” Tammy screamed, still holding Andre. The boy now wailed and kicked even more to free himself from his mother's grip.

“Tammy, don't. Leave her alone!” Daphne yelled when Esther stumbled.

Ben grabbed Tammy around her waist and pulled her away from Esther. Tammy, however, continued screaming.

“The boy, Tammy. Stop yelling. You're scaring your son!” Ben said, but Tammy wouldn't stop yelling obscenities at Esther and swinging her arms to reach her.

Daphne stood up and begged Esther, who looked terribly distraught, to leave. Esther, however, was again in that strange hypnotized state, yelling at invisible aggressors who wouldn't leave her in peace. “Please, go. You'll end up getting hurt here!” Daphne told her, but Esther didn't hear a word.

“Tammy, child, you're back!” Daphne heard a woman's voice say behind her. She turned, and saw that an old woman, along with an old man, were trying to walk Tammy to the house. “Here, let me hold Andre,” she said and motherly hugged the boy.

“Go home, Esther, you've caused enough problems!” The man said firmly, the frame of his black glasses reflecting the light of the closest lamppost. Esther ran away immediately, and the elderly couple grabbed Tammy's belongings and continued guiding her down the garden.

Ben followed them looking anxious.

“Is she going to be all right?” He asked, before the couple closed the door behind them.

“Yes, dear, she'll be fine. She needs some rest now. Goodnight,” the old lady said, and closed the door after a melancholy smile.

Daphne was ready for the ground to open and swallow her. She was, perhaps more than she had ever felt in her life, physically and psychologically drained. Feeling that her legs would fail her at any moment, she sat on the sidewalk and rested her chin on her knees.

“My head feels strangely heavy. It feels too heavy for my neck to support,” she told Ben when he joined her looking equally exhausted.

“Yeah?” He said and then thought for a second. “Huh, mine too. Weird.”

“First, the bus broke down,” Daphne said.

“And then Andre disappeared,” he said.

“After that, the crazy fight.”

Ben laughed.

“Why are you laughing? Don't laugh! It was really scary,” Daphne demanded, but started laughing too.

“I had never seen anything like that,” he confessed.

“Me neither.”

“Do you think Mr. Girvin is fine?” Ben asked.

“I don't know. He ran away. I sure hope he is fine.”

They were silent for a minute.

“And then Esther showed up!” Ben said abruptly.

“Why do you think Tammy behaved like that?”

“I don't know,” he said, and shook his head as if disapproving what he was thinking about.

“She hit the old woman, and called her names. It was crazy! I was really scared. And did you see Esther's face? She was so afraid of Tammy!”

“I was afraid of Tammy too,” Ben said and laughed again looking more tired than entertained.

“She told me to leave.”

“Tammy did?” Ben asked, shocked.

“No. Esther did.”

“Oh, why?”

“She didn't say why. She just said I shouldn't be here and should go back home.”

“Did she hurt you?” He asked out of a sudden.

“No. We're the ones who hurt her,” Daphne said and sighed.

Daphne and Ben were silent for a few minutes. The full moon was bright in the sky. They stayed looking at it, their upturned faces reflecting the moonlight. They would have remained like that forever, but their luggage sitting nearby reminded them they had to go to McAdams College.

When Ben reached for his briefcase, he frowned.

“Oh, look. I have a cut on my hand. I wonder how I got it,” he said, examining the wound.

Daphne shrugged, and they left side by side toward their new life.

Chapter 5
Abstract chapter design

Daphne's first two weeks at college were the most confusing she had lived in her life. Firstly, meeting her roommate, a girl called April Smith, did not go as well as she had hoped it would. Secondly, she suffered throughout the ice-breaking activities tailored by her resident advisors during welcome week, and felt like an outsider in a world that highly praised sociability. Thirdly, when her classes started, she realized they would be more challenging than she had expected.

Everything was overwhelming, though at times very enlightening.

She had literary analysis and a class specifically on Shakespeare's plays. She also had lessons on the major American and British authors, before lunch. In the afternoon, she devoted her time to world history, because she thought too much literature would depress her.

Her professors, without distinction, were very inspiring and genuinely passionate about the courses they taught. Her academic adviser at McAdams, Dr. Lawrence Steinberg, actually was a published writer. He had published an epistolary novel titled Isadora that was becoming quite the sensation among the students on campus.

Isadora was a 19-year-old who had left her parents' house upon their death to start a new life in a different town. Sadly, she became delusional. Her delusions – quite aggressive ones, which mostly involved shadows that whispered she was cursed – led to her own death by drowning.

Right after the death of her boyfriend, Isadora was then truly convinced to be cursed. Her presence, she thought, was causing the death of her beloved ones. Desperate to stay away from everyone else she knew and had learned to love, she took her deceased boyfriend's boat and sailed day and night, until she starved herself to death. During a storm, the ocean swallowed the boat and Isadora's body vanished forever.

Daphne, who had finished reading the book in just four days, from the very beginning regarded it as book she would never forget. She thought that if her father read it, he would have quite a different opinion on the influence of a college education on someone's writing.

Isadora was such a good-natured character, always genuinely kind to everyone around her, that many students started to debate why she shouldn't have died in the end of the novel. Daphne didn't belong to any discussion group in particular, but she had intently observed them gathering in lounges. She had watched them discussing in that enthusiastic manner that abounded in youth, carefully listening to their debates while pretending to be doing homework at a nearby table.

One day, Daphne decided to ask Professor Steinberg for advice on writing.

Isadora was, Daphne thought, a representation of the Lady of Shallot. She felt particularly impressed that her professor had been able to so capably make such analogies with Lord Tennyson's work and at the same time make Isadora a story that felt unique.

She went to the meeting with him feeling brave – though, of course, a little nervous to be meeting with an acclaimed professor and author – but as soon as she stepped into his office, she felt like she was quite a different person. That is, she felt like her old self. She looked at him in his office, a man dressed very formally, and felt very intimidated right away.

Not that professor Steinberg was a difficult person to address. In fact, he was the best representation of a man who had spent his entire life devoting himself to knowledge, though the weight of his wisdom was never imposing on him or on his students. It felt like knowledge went through him and left his mind metamorphosed into something of a more ethereal quality, something weightless and more fluid, more dynamic. Something, above all, attractive.

Still, as she found herself in his office, she felt insecure about her own ideas and the very nature of going there to talk with him. She was scared he would find her foolish.

Building up courage, she told him everything she thought of Isadora.

“The Lady of Shallot?” He asked, and took off his glasses as he pondered for a few seconds. “It flatters me to think that perhaps my writing is more linked to Lord Tennyson's than I thought.”

“You mean you didn't make all those reference on purpose?” Daphne asked him, surprised.

“I've taught classes on Lord Tennyson's works for so many years, that some of his stories, perhaps all of them, might have gotten deep inside my soul and made me who I am. That's the same for all writers. The stories of our favorite and least liked authors flow naturally into our writing and give it meaning, even though we do not clearly notice when it happens. That, I suppose, is how creativity works. It is constantly making us repaint and retell old stories.”

“But I thought creativity sort of meant originality. It means, I guess, coming up with something unique. I – I actually enjoy writing. I want to be an author. I mean, I want to write a novel. The problems I have with writing usually have to do with my constant inability to think of ideas no other writers had ever thought. I'm sorry, all I'm saying is that I don't want to be the sort of writer who writes about, let's say, one of these numerous novels about writers having writer's block. I want to write something creative, unique.”

“I understand your worries, Daphne. I'm also happy to hear you want to write a novel, and I'd encourage you if you were considering writing about a writer, yes. Why not? It certainly is a difficult, though rewarding career. You probably know this too well already. Concerning your thought that creativity means originality, I believe some people would say that, yes, that's what it means,” he said, and after thinking some more, added in a whisper: “Others, perhaps, would say that creating something new is nothing but theft of something old.”

Daphne left professor Steinberg's office feeling strange, though strange in a good way.

That was a particularly windy day, the grass on the beautiful grounds of McAdams College bowed to the strength of nature, and the tree branches moved as if worshiping the sky. Daphne felt her clothes blown very loosely around her body as she walked back to her residence hall. Her mind, for the first time in many months, was at ease. She was ready to begin writing her novel.

In an impulse, she untied her hair. She opened her arms and let the wind push her to Sampson Hall, where she lived on campus. She had a heartwarming daydream that if she jumped, the wind would catch her and take her with it to some other place where she could finally be happy, be herself. She was ready to try flying away, when a familiar figure greeted her.

Daphne froze. There, with her hair annoyingly flying about her face, she waited until Ben got closer to her. She couldn't help feeling that she had been caught doing something wrong.

“You look very nice today, Daphne,” Ben said with a smile, though a slightly cynical one that didn't match his naturally good personality.

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Funny that we meet here. I actually am coming from your room, but your roommate didn't know where you were.”

Of course April didn't know, for she didn't talk with Daphne.

When April Smith arrived at McAdams, she was just as scared as Daphne and desperate to adjust to her new life as fast as possible. She was coming from a school where she had been a popular girl. Very popular, actually, and adored like a rock star. She wanted – or, rather, needed – to have the same status in her new life, otherwise living felt meaningless. When she arrived, she was greeted by her neighbors, Michelle Brown and Janice Schmidt, and found in being with them what looked like her only opportunity to restart her reputation.

It was the rule, however, that popular ladies only had a maximum of two best friends – only two, and no one else, to share the glories of having a very close friendship. If unlucky Daphne had arrived, perhaps, ten hours earlier, April and her would have been best friends for the rest of their lives.

During their college years, they would always have shared the same room and decorated the walls with April's glow-in-the-dark stars and the posters of her favorite movies. Daphne would have received neatly written cards every holiday, and they would have talked every night until 2:00 AM about April's admirers.

Daphne would have wore a bright pink dress in April's wedding and would have been her maid-of-honor. That same day, Daphne would have met Joshua Muller, a half-German businessman and April's husband's best man. They would have dated for a year, stayed engaged for four months, and married with simplicity in a hidden chapel in some obscure European village between mountains.

Daphne would have given birth to twin boys, Otto and Werner, and lived happily in Ratingen, where she would have helped Josh administer his telecommunications company. Daphne would have proved to be a keen administrator, but Josh would have encouraged her to continue writing.

At the age of forty-five, she would have published an autobiographical book about her memorable years and friendship with April at McAdams, and she would have won the Nobel in literature for it.

As this friendship was bound to never happen, Daphne knew that a few terrible things awaited April in her future. Daphne could only lament for April that Michelle wasn't exactly the loyal friend she was seeking to have in her life, and for Josh – dear Josh – because Janice wasn't the supportive and loving partner he needed. There were many sad things in Joshua's future, but Daphne forbore thinking about him any longer. Thinking about him broke her heart.

“Where were you?” Ben asked her, bringing her back from her daydreaming.

“In professor Steinberg's office,” she said, and blushed when she realized she had spoken too fast. “I – Um, had a meeting with him. He's my adviser.”

“Isn't he the author of Isadora?”

“Yes! Yes, he is. Have you read the book?”

“No,” he said, and scratched his head looking a bit shy. “I actually don't read novels that often. But I do like them, yeah.”

“Good,” Daphne said and stared at her shoes.

There was an awkward silence between them, and she felt tense. She knew what he was going to say. Daphne thought that was the best time for sylphs to come pick her up in the air and take her to a country where she didn't feel nervous, but there wasn't a lot to expect from them. Sylphs had never paid attention to her.

“Why didn't you show up last night?” He finally asked. She would have cringed, if he wasn't standing in front of her.

Since the first day at McAdams, Ben had followed her everywhere. He daily invited her to lunch and to have dinner together in the cafeteria. He was always searching for her in the common lounge. When he couldn't find her, he went upstairs to knock on her door. If Daphne happened to be alone in her bedroom, he stayed with her until April arrived with Michelle and Janice. He talked about his classes, his friends from high school, and his plans for the future. Ben wanted to be a mathematician, but he couldn't decide whether he wanted to teach or to be a researcher. To be both a teacher and a researcher, as Daphne had suggested, was out of the question. He thought the only way he could succeed was by giving his full attention to just one activity.

Daphne usually liked to have him around. He was a polite boy, always thought twice before saying something, and showed the greatest interest in her writing when she told him she wanted to write a novel. He had read, like everyone else in the world, her short stories in the past and wanted to know more about them. But Daphne didn't feel like talking about her past.

He talked and talked, as if they had been close childhood friends. He was a shy boy around others, but when the two of them were alone, he turned into a completely different person, and spoke about himself with ease. Daphne soon grew surprised, and a little uncomfortable, with that sudden friendliness.

The day before Daphne's meeting with Professor Steinberg, during dinner, Ben had invited her to watch a movie with him. She said she would, but as they walked from the cafeteria to Sampson Hall – they lived in the same residence hall – Ben was more inquisitive than normal. When Daphne forbore talking about her life at home, he was offended. Ben accused her of never being open.

How could she be open after only a few days together? She started to regret having him around.

When they arrived in the lobby of Sampson Hall, she lied to him she needed to get a jacket before joining him for the movie, and spent the rest of the night reading under the town's gazebo with a flashlight.

“Because I had some reading to get done,” she told him, uncertain. Although she had decided it was best to run away from him, she couldn't help feeling bad.

He gave her a nervous smile.

“But you told me you were going to get a jacket and meet me later,” he said, and sounded as if carefully weighing every word not to let his annoyance show.

“I know. I'm sorry. I – I realized I had homework to do when I went to my room, and it was too late to let you know I wouldn't be able to watch a movie with you.”

“You were not in your room last night.”

“I went to the library,” Daphne lied.

“Well, on the way to the library you could have stopped by my room and told me you couldn't stay.”

Daphne, who was feeling more and more awkward, rubbed her forehead impatiently. Ben was looking at her intently and gradually losing his temper.

“You're lying,” he said out of the blue, and Daphne blushed immediately. “You didn't go to the library. You know, I was a little annoyed you hadn't showed up, so Caleb and I went to a bar on College Avenue. On the way back, we saw you reading under a gazebo.”

Rage took over Daphne's mind. She didn't know why, but she couldn't stand being confronted by Ben, even though she knew she was wrong.

“That's right. I am lying!” She said, raising her voice. “I also lied when I said I'd meet you later. I don't know why. We aren't friends, Ben. I'm not here to make any friends. I need to focus on more important things.”

Ben was pale, even more pale than he naturally was, and looked on the verge of shouting at her all the thoughts that tortured his mind at the moment.

“You need to focus on more important things?” He repeated, nervously. “You mean your book? Your novel? If writing is more important than making friends, then I was really wrong about you.”

“Are you insane?” She yelled, losing her mind. “How can you say making friends like it was the easiest thing to do? We were not becoming friends. There's no way we could become friends in a week or so! At this moment, yes, writing is more important to me. I'm alone here.”

He shook his head, annoyed.

“You know, you're the strangest person I've ever met,” he said in a melancholy tone, and walked away.

Daphne thought of running up to him to continue shouting, but managed to control herself. She tied her hair back in a ponytail and spun on her heels decided to leave McAdams College to never come back. She didn't want to be around Benjamin Wallace after what had happened. She felt ashamed of herself; though, more than ashamed, she felt angry. How dared he say I was lying? She thought, rubbing her forehead as she walked away. He knows nothing about me, and has the boldness to accuse me. He knows nothing about friendship!

If McAdams was supposed to be her new home for the next few years, it was very disheartening to think that after two weeks she already felt like running away.

Daphne had, though, nowhere to go.

She spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the stores on College Avenue. Nothing really interested her, but looking at expensive clothes she wouldn't dare to buy and odd antiques seemed, little by little, to readjust her thoughts. Daphne felt more aware of her rudeness, of feeling lonely, and of the weather.

Her sweater felt too thin on her body, and her spirits were low. Trying to escape those harsh, cold winds, she impulsively opened the door of a strange, windowless black building that was squeezed between a drugstore and a small restaurant. She entered the establishment with the sole intent to find warmth, and how great was her surprise when, instead of finding a bar, she stumbled into a cozy, dim bookstore.

Daphne gasped and instinctively covered her mouth. The place was packed with books and more books covering every wall. There was a tall stack of books on every corner. She took a deep breath and filled her nostrils with that welcoming smell of old parchments. A few fake torches here and there provided the only source of illumination to that little hidden bookstore.

She walked about feeling the book spines and was glad to notice that they were in no specific order. Bookstores were way more interesting places when she felt she had to go hunting for certain books, or when a visit to a random bookshelf allowed her to be greeted by unexpected stories.

“Hello?” A woman's voice said behind Daphne, startling her. “Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I was going to close the store.”

“No problem!” Daphne said, feeling a little embarrassed and heartbroken. Her little kingdom was, after all, already taken. Daphne felt envious.

The woman smiled. There was something in her large smile that resembled the frankness of her mother's smile. Daphne forgot her envy and felt as if she had just met someone wonderful.

“You're not the first person to feel hypnotized after entering this bookstore,” she said with a smile. She was in her forties and had a very distant accent that Daphne couldn't precise, but perhaps it was French. Her hair was abundantly curly and very long. In that white, long dress, she looked as if she had just came out of one of John William Waterhouse's paintings. She precisely looked like, Daphne thought, Waterhouse's Juliet.

“Yes. This place is. . . wonderful!” Daphne said and sighed. “I should go now, then.”

Daphne had barely touched the door knob to leave, when the woman spoke with her once again.

“You are a writer, aren't you?” She asked.

“Yes,” Daphne said, and turned to her with her heart racing. “Yes, I am. How did you –?”

“Your hands,” the woman said, and pointed at Daphne's hands. “Your fingers are covered in black ink. Do you use a fountain pen?”

“Yes, I do!” Daphne replied. She felt strangely happy. And, above all, relieved.

“That's your mark,” and she paused as if waiting to know Daphne's name.

“Daphne. Daphne Chase.”

“Well, that's your mark, Daphne Chase. Just show your hands and people will know who and what you are,” she said and smiled. “I'm Marie Delbes.”

They shook hands. Marie had many rings with stones.

“I should go now. You're closing the bookstore. Nice to meet you, Ms. Delbes!”

“Just call me Marie. And feel free to come visit again. It is, you'll find out, a nice place to write.”

Daphne took a good look at the world behind Marie, and after a long sigh, waved goodbye. She knew she would definitely come back.

Chapter 6
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It was getting dark, the front of the bars were already packed with loud students ready to forget academia and remember they were young and alive, but Daphne didn't mind being occasionally harassed by drunk boys.

As she walked back to Sampson Hall, Daphne didn't have eyes to the world around her. She could only see the ink stains on her fingers. That was her mark. A writer's mark! She whispered to herself.

Daphne brought food along with her to her room, so she wouldn't need to go to the cafeteria and end up having to eat surrounded by so many excited voices. Dinner in the cafeteria felt like such a sad idea. The place would be crowded, all tables taken by talkative groups of friends, and Daphne would be walking around looking like a lost puppy as she tried to find a seat. She barely knew other students and could not bring herself to try joining their tables. Her solution was to buy a sandwich – something that wouldn't make the entire room smell like food and wouldn't irritate April's delicate nostrils – and eat it alone.

She ate happily, for April was already gone to help organize Michelle's birthday party, and quite enjoyed herself and the feeling of being enveloped by silence. She almost felt as if she was alone in the world. . . that is, until someone anxiously knocked on her door.

Daphne instinctively thought that April had forgotten her keys and was locked out, but she soon remembered forgetting her keys wasn't something April would do. April was always very careful to avoid embarrassing social circumstances.

She stayed still and held her breath as the knocking continued. She heard a deep sigh, and recognized the voice. It was Ben's. She then heard the sound of something heavy dropping on the floor, and then the noise of shuffling paper. After a few minutes in suspense, she was startled when a sheet of paper slid from the crack under her door into her room. The next noise was of someone walking away briskly.

When Daphne felt safe again, she reached for the sheet of paper.

“I need to talk with you,” she read. She read it again. It was signed B.W.

Her heart was still pounding. There was nothing more stressful than to pretend that the room was empty when she was certain that the person looking for her was able to see the lights were on and instinctively knew she was hiding in there.

Daphne's excitement over Marie's words had almost erased the meeting with Ben that afternoon from her memory. She read the urgency in his almost unintelligible handwriting, but no matter how urgent his request was, she was not inclined to yield. She was angry with him and with herself, and didn't want to see him while she felt that way.

She crumpled his letter, and after throwing it in the trash can, she grabbed her notebook and stared at a blank page until she was too exhausted and frustrated to continue.

Daphne woke up very early the next morning. Sun rays had barely touched her eyelids, and she was already back from dreamland. The curtains were open, and Daphne soon understood that April had not spent the night there. April needed the curtains to be well shut, the room to be pitch-black, otherwise she wouldn't be able to fall asleep.

She got up and went to the cafeteria to have breakfast. The place was practically empty. Students rarely got up early on the weekends. Daphne looked around as she drank her coffee. A few students nearby slowly chewed while reading their newspapers.

After breakfast, Daphne went to the library to start working on her homework. She was surprised that so early in the morning there was a group of disheveled students there, furiously using their calculators. She wondered whether the problems they worked on had let them sleep at least a little bit the night before. She overheard a few people talking about an important calculus assignment they had to submit by Sunday, and she was then certain those were some of its victims.

One of them – a particularly tired looking one – looked up when she was still looking at them. He eyed her with annoyance, and his already exhausted expression turned into scorn.

She didn't understand the look he gave her, but one soon learns that scornful looks in the library aren't personal. Students overwhelmed with the work load assigned to them often angrily glance at students whose lives seem easier.

Daphne sat at a table by one of the library's windows and concentrated on her reading assignments.

At 9:00 AM, however, she ignored her homework and left toward Marie's bookstore in a hurry. When she finally spotted the black building between the drugstore and the Greek restaurant, her heart skipped a beat. The day before, back in her dorm room, she wondered whether she had dreamed about the place. Fortunately, it was real.

As she touched the large wooden door, she noticed the small golden drawing of the Sphinx right under the door knob. Half human and half lion, the creature looked up at her with inquisitive eyes. Daphne stepped back, startled. The Sphinx opened its mouth, and Daphne trembled of fear it would ask her a riddle. But, instead of testing her, it burst into laughter.

Unable to endure the sphinx's mockery, she opened the door and darted into the bookstore.

The books were still in that organized mess. The torches were lit and the place was still as dim as before. Windowless, it was as if it had never seen the light of day, though cozy and ventilated enough thanks to the wonders of today's engineering.

“I thought I'd see you again,” Marie said, greeting Daphne from a corner where she had been adding a few volumes to a bookshelf.

“Oh, hello. How are you?”

“I am fine, thank you,” Marie said. After she was done placing the last book, she walked to Daphne.

Marie was wearing a long, light green dress that seemed more proper for the summer.

“Are you here to write?” Marie asked her.

“Yes, if it's not too inconvenient,” Daphne said. She felt as if she was asking for one of the Muse's permission to write a story.

Marie smiled and gestured for Daphne to follow her.

“It's no inconvenience. It is my honor to have you writing in my bookstore.”

She led Daphne to the back of the bookstore, where there was a small table and a lamp on it. It was the only table in that store.

“It isn't a very big desk, but I hope it will be big enough,” Marie told her.

Daphne didn't know how to express her happiness. The desk was perfect. What place would be better for a writer? The bookstore was hidden enough not to attract swarms of people only interested in buying intellectual gifts to their pseudo-intellectual friends. And the desk, surrounded by books, offered her a lifelong stock of inspiration and encouragement to finish her novel.

“It's – it's perfect, Marie. Thank you!” Daphne said and hugged Marie. She had never hugged a stranger before, but she felt as if Marie was her benefactress.

“Do your best, chérie,” Marie said. “I live upstairs and I'm still cleaning my apartment. Would you let me know in case a customer shows up?” She pointed out the staircase in the back of the store, which Daphne had not noticed until then.

“Yes, yes,” Daphne said, eager to help.

When the girl was finally by herself, she took a deep breath and sat down. She placed her backpack next to the chair, and took her notebook and loyal fountain pen. She placed everything on the table, and pulled it closer to her body.

“I guess this is when I start writing,” she murmured to herself.

She had just opened her notebook, when she heard the door open. Daphne craned her neck to see who had just entered the bookstore, but could only hear the footsteps of someone calmly walking. She looked at the staircase leading to Marie's apartment, and thought about going to tell her that customers had arrived, but decided to simply wait to see whether Marie's presence would be necessary.

The footsteps sounded careful, as if someone was meticulously looking for something, and suddenly stopped. Maybe the customer found the book he or she was looking for, Daphne thought.

She tried to write, but she was already too anxious and could not concentrate. She had already stood up to go looking for Marie when, to her surprise, she heard the footsteps again, this time quickly approaching her desk.

“Ah, I guess this is the place where you're hiding now,” a young man told her.

Daphne looked at him in surprise. His rudeness made her instinctively look to the sides, although she knew she would find no one else there, to check if he was addressing other person. After all, she had no business with him.

He burst into laughter, and his laughter was so violent that she stepped back horrified. He didn't stop. As he continued laughing, she watched him intently. She thought he seemed to be her age, but his face looked prematurely old, like the faces of students addicted to all-nighters. In a matter of seconds she saw it turn from a sad, unhealthy pale shade to a bright purple hue that didn't suit him.

There was, also, a gray cloud above his head, but Daphne thought it was better not to look at it. Only a few times in her life she had seen those clouds over people's heads, and every time they preceded bad things. More than bad omens, those clouds were a precise indication that trouble was on its way.

“Excuse me, I'm going to ask the shop's owner to come help you,” Daphne said, and tried to go away, but the boy raised an arm to stop her.

The gesture was so unexpected that it startled her.

He frowned, and squinted his eyes in suspicion.

“Don't you recognize me?”

At first, Daphne did think he looked familiar, but now he was nothing more than a drunken lunatic.

“You saw me in the library not too long ago. Don't try to pretend you didn't, because you looked at me and I looked back very well looked to show I could see you looking at me.”

“Oh, yes, I remember you,” she said, and her voice trembled with nervousness. He was the guy who had looked at her with an angry face.

The cloud above his head was getting bigger, thicker with rain. There was a storm coming.

“I'm Caleb Deheeger, if you don't know me.”

“I've heard of you.”

“Oh really?” He asked with a large smile, and it was then clear that he was one of the vain type.

“You're Ben's roommate.”

His smile vanished and he was angry again.

“That's true. And I've heard of you, too. I've heard what a stupid girl you are.”

Excuse me?

Daphne was shocked. Nobody had ever talked with her like that.

“Why do you treat people as if they were inferior to you? Guess what, you are the one who's inferior. Ben is a great person. You're lucky that he bothered trying to help you.”

Help me?” She asked indignantly. It angered her to think that he thought she needed help.

“Loot at yourself! Who would want to be your friend if it weren't to help you? Only Ben has enough patience to endure being around someone like you.”

Her heart was beating fast and she felt she would start crying if she stayed there any longer. She tried to walk away from him, but he blocked the passage like a professional bully, arms crossed over his puffed up chest.

“Get out of my way. I have absolutely nothing to discuss with you,” she asked, but there was not a drop of confidence in her voice.

Daphne's fear, as expected, made Caleb stronger.

“I hate ungrateful people like you,” he said. A lightning flash suddenly shone down on his face and thundering echoed from the cloud, startling Daphne. Unaware of the little storm forming above his head, Caleb thought himself to be very intimidating. He continued: “You pretend to be weak, and you lie and lie until the day you back-stab good-hearted people like Ben. You know, I actually think it's good you stay away from my friend from now on,” and there was more lightning and thundering, “but first I'll make you apologize to him.”

“You are not making me do anything,” she said and spun on her heel, but Caleb grabbed her arm and turned her back to him.

“Yes, I am,” he said through gritted teeth. “You clearly don't know me. If you think that you –.”

“Disrespect is not welcome in my store,” Marie cut in. She had arrived so quietly, that she startled Caleb. “Now, young man, let go of her arm, s'il vous plaît.”

Since Marie was there to defend Daphne, Caleb couldn't continue harrassing her. After letting go of her arm, though, he still was bold enough to give her a threatening look, and strode out.

After she heard the bookstore door closing, Daphne looked at Marie. She didn't know whether she felt more ashamed of the situation or annoyed, and also didn't know how to begin apologizing.

“Are you all right?” Marie calmly asked. Daphne felt relieved when she noticed that Marie's tone of voice was more preoccupied than inquisitive.

“Yes,” she lied, and with trembling hands put her notebook and fountain pen back in her backpack. She was ready to leave, but something in the way Marie looked at her stopped her. “No,” she confessed.

Marie gave her an encouraging smile, which was enough for Daphne to tell her everything that had happened between Ben and her in the last few days, barely stopping to breathe and without fear of being judged.

When she was done talking, though, she could hardly believe what she had done. She had never been so frank.

“Lying that you'd meet with him wasn't your wisest decision,” Marie said. “No one likes to be stood up.”

“I know,” said Daphne, and her voice sounded exhausted. “The truth is that I don't know why I lied to him. I like him, but sometimes the way Ben talks annoys me. I don't know, but I kept feeling that he expected too much from me, even though we only recently met. I thought, how is it possible for someone to develop such strong ties in such a small amount of time? I know it was a coward decision, but I thought it best to run away from him while I had time. I suppose I messed up the system, but I couldn't bring myself to being around him any longer.”

“What do you mean by messing the system?”

Daphne blushed and felt uncertain whether she should let Marie know about how she saw her social interactions, but Marie had been so kindly patient, that she decided to continue being honest.

“Have you read Isadora?”

“Yes!” Marie said with a smile and her eyes lit up. “In fact, I know Professor Steinberg, the author. He likes to read foreign books. He says that should be enough, at least for now, to fulfill his wish to travel more. That poor man is always so busy teaching at McAdams! Last time he came by, he bought Helena, by Machado de Assis.”

Daphne then thought of her father. The Brazilians were also very present in Abelard's life, both through literature and music. In fact, he always listened to Villa-Lobos, his favorite Brazilian composer, when he was particularly melancholy and read Jose de Alencar when he needed inspiration to develop what he called unforgettable female characters.

“Well, I've noticed that my life is very much like Isadora's.”

“Oh, dear, are your parents deceased?” Marie asked, alarmed.

“No, no, they are alive. But now I live on my own, sort of, like Isadora when she arrived in Spring Island. Adriano, remember, arrived there on the same day she did, like Ben. From the very beginning I thought he was bound to be in her life. I guess that's how it goes in all novels: the first character to come to the main character's life is the future romantic partner. After reading Isadora, I realized that Ben was going to become the one in my life! That scared me. That scared me a lot, actually. I don't think I – well, I don't think I'm prepared to have someone that important in my life at the moment. I'm simply too busy with other things. But, I guess I messed up the system when I decided to push him, the romantic hero of my life, away. Oh well.”

Marie looked very confused, but gave her a supportive look nonetheless.

“Don't be so strict. This is your freshman year at college and it is natural that both of you are confused. It's natural that at times you won't behave like the old Daphne. I'd say that what drew him so close to you was the fact that you come from the same town.”

“But we weren't friends back in Lavinia.”

“Have you ever been abroad, Daphne?” Marie asked with a smile.


“Ah, you'd be surprised with your own behavior abroad! When overseas, we make strong friendships with compatriots we stumble upon, all in less than a minute. Compatriots who, back at home, at times we wouldn't dare to approach. That, in my opinion, is the strangest phenomenon in terms of friendship making. Why do such instantaneous friendships occur, I don't know. But I think it has to do with fear of not being able to survive in a place other than one's natural habitat. Meeting compatriots abroad is like getting back a bit of security that home provides.”

Daphne sighed.

“I – I should go back to the dorms.”

“Oh, dear, forgive me. Have I offended you?”

Marie looked very preoccupied.

“No. I – I was just then thinking that his roommate, Caleb, that guy who was here trying to force me to go apologize to Ben, was right.”

Marie grunted.

“That young man's words should not be taken into consideration. Someone who treats others so rudely loses all credibility even when saying universal truths!”

“But he was right. I treated Benjamin awfully.”

“Whether he was right or wrong, he must be ignored for being so petulant!” Marie said, distressed. “I will never accept violence as a way to defend a cause, whatever the cause is.”

“I should go now,” Daphne said.

She was starting to feel restless and needed to go for a walk. Wandering around her family's grounds in the past always helped her think.

“He disturbed your work, didn't he?” Marie asked, disappointed, when Daphne reached for the door knob.

“It was just a little distraction,” Daphne said and tried to smile, but the muscles in her face were too stiff.

“Don't let such distractions build up,” Marie said. “Feel free to come back to The Sphinx to write another time.”

Daphne thanked her, and with a sinking heart she left the bookstore. She had barely closed the door, when she heard someone laughing. For a second, Daphne thought that it was all in her head like a very vivid memory. But it didn't take a long time for her to realize that laughter actually came from without her.

There, below the door knob, the Sphinx hysterically laughed.

Daphne looked around, but none of the few people going up and down the street seemed to notice it.

“Of course they can't hear you,” Daphne murmured to the Sphinx. “You're not laughing at them. You're laughing at me. Do you think I'm pathetic?”

“So you also speak to yourself like crazy people do. Good to know,” Daphne heard Caleb's arrogant voice behind her and her blood froze.

“What now?” Daphne asked, and tried to keep a straight face to look stronger.

“You are going to apologize to him right now!”

“Leave me alone, you lunatic!” Daphne shouted back at him. “You don't know me and it's none of your business what goes between Benjamin and I.”

“Who are you calling lunatic? As far as I know, you're the daughter of a madman. That makes you, then, insane by birth!”

Daphne felt that all blood in her body went up to her face. She could feel it burning in her veins, thought it wasn't just out of anger. She didn't want to merely hurt him. No, she wasn't interested in causing wounds that could easily mend and heal in a day or two. She was ready to kill him. She wanted him dead.

She pushed Caleb with all strength she had. Caught off guard, the boy stumbled and fell. She threw herself at him and beat his chest with her fists. “Don't you dare say a word about my father ever again!” She shouted at him and continued striking him, until a loud noise startled her. She looked up. To Daphne's surprise, there was a cloud, bigger and grayer than the one she had seen over Caleb's head, above her own. It was almost black.

She had never seen one of those above herself and couldn't help dreading it more than she dreaded the ones that now and then appeared over others.

Caleb, who had been trying to cover his head with his hands all this time, noticed her distraction and pushed her away, freeing himself.

Daphne saw the cloud over her head violently respond with lightning flashes and loud thundering that made her whole body tremble. There were lightning bolts, too, that dangerously threatened to electrocute her, but instead hit the ground around her. Whenever that happened, Daphne instinctively hugged herself and screamed.

Rain from the cloud poured down on her, quickly soaking her clothes and penetrating her soul with coldness. She tried to cover her head with her jacket, though all in vain, because it was then very windy too, and wind beat rain against her face.

When she finally looked up at Caleb, who was then standing up in front of her, she saw his face was distorted with confusion and terror.

She looked at her arms and touched her hair, and they surprisingly were dry again. She glanced up, and there was no sign of the storm above her head. It was as if nothing had happened at all. Fear that she would never be the same crept into her, and Daphne was left feeling inconsolable.

“Gosh,” Caleb murmured, appalled, “you are insane.”

Daphne burst into tears. Unable to endure the boy's judging, she darted away. She ran as fast as she could. Her thoughts felt like a hurricane in her head, so she had to rely on her instincts for survival, and they told her to leave Middleton and never return.

When Daphne realized she had nowhere to go, she stopped. Besides, she couldn't just leave. She had to write her book.

“What am I supposed to do now?” She asked herself out loud and started sobbing.

She knew that her life in Middleton would be miserable, certain that Caleb – her nemesis – would start spreading mean rumors about her. She couldn't go back and be greeted by people's mockery.

Daphne then thought of Abelard, and her father was very vivid in her mind saying “I knew this would happen!” She felt she couldn't go back home and have her pride shattered. She instinctively knew she would never be able to recover it.

Penniless, Daphne also couldn't go to a hotel.

“There is nowhere I could go,” she murmured.

When she started hyperventilating with too much crying, she rested her back on a tree trunk and tried to calm herself. There has to be a way out, she repeated mentally. When she was finally breathing normally, she realized she was on the border to the woods.

A strange air current sweeping through the woods suddenly blew against her face, bringing a strong smell of pine trees mixed with a distant aroma of flowers.

“This has to be a sign,” Daphne said, and entered the woods without thinking twice.

Although she didn't know where she was going, she continued walking.

Daphne walked and walked, until she was exhausted. She let her body drop by a tree, and sobbed until she passed out, overwhelmed by torturing thoughts.

Chapter 7
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Daphne slipped in and out of strange dreams for what felt like an eternity, all of them involving voices that whispered her name. When she finally woke up, she realized it was already nighttime.

She stood up with a jolt, and felt her heart pounding in her chest as panic shadowed her reason. Confused, at first she forgot where she was and was then terrified that she had completely lost herself in that dark place. But, when her eyes started to get used to seeing in the dark, she noticed the trees around her, the starry sky up there and a bright moon watching over her. I'm still in the woods, she thought.

Daphne felt queasy and light-headed when she started to remember everything that had happened to her.

She was melancholy, and too tired – even though she had slept there for so many hours – to go looking for the way out of the woods. And why, after all, would she want to leave the only environment where up until then she had found safety and quietness?

A white owl flew from a nearby tree branch to another, and she wished she was an owl or some other bird, so she could stay unperturbed, protected, and in communion with nature.

Ready to make of that place her own little kingdom, Daphne climbed up a tree with some difficulty and sat on a branch by the owl, which eyed her with indifference, its big amber colored eyes glistening in the moonlight.

“Don't worry, I won't bother you. But, if you want to be kind to your new Queen, bringing me pen and paper would make you the loveliest of my subjects. Do you know, also, where I could get food here? Though not the type you eat. Not those poor little rodents you catch. I'm talking about fruit, and vegetables, and – well, whatever grow in these woods that is edible by humans. Oh, and water, too, because I need to drink water every day and I need to wash my body too, and my glasses, because the lenses get dirty too and it's really difficult to see when they are like that. Do you think you could fetch me some water now?”

Daphne would have continued talking, but the owl suddenly hissed at her and started flapping its wings in annoyance.

“All right, all right. Forget everything I said!” Daphne said, and raised her hands to protect her face from the owl's wings. “I'll fetch these things on my own.”

The owl then flew away and Daphne craned her neck to see where it was going. There, sitting high up on the tree, Daphne saw the owl fly, like a white ghost in the night, over the lake she had seen with Ben on the day they arrived in Middleton.

Her mouth fell open. She had kept bad memories associated with that lake, but from that new perspective she thought it actually looked beautiful.

Daphne went down the tree and entered the clearing where the lake was. She sat on a big, smooth rock to contemplate the water. “It is beautiful,” Daphne repeated under her breath, and was surprised she felt peaceful.

Her memory of the lake had painted it in different colors. In her imagination, it had survived bigger than it was in reality. It was, in fact, way smaller and serene. Without people disturbing its reflecting surface, the lake was a gift from paradise. Its beauty existed only on solitude.

Then, sneaky, the monster of sadness within her awoke and Daphne felt as if she had gone back at least ten years in time, and homesickness hit her hard like the anxiety a child feels when her parents are late to pick her up at school.

But, at the age of seven, Daphne still was able to maintain the hope that her parents would show up at some point. At eighteen, only a miracle that allowed them to read minds and teleport would bring Abelard and Glenda Chase to where she was in the woods.

Daphne lowered her head and her tears dropped, pearly, bombarding the stones on the ground. That night, no one knew how she felt abandoned.

Something that looked like a bright golden word came quickly sliding in the air and bumped against her leg, disappearing in a puff of smoke before she could read it. Daphne raised her head, startled, looking for the origin of such curious phenomenon. Not finding it, she contented herself in running her fingers though the remain of smoke still dissipating in the air.

She was trying to imagine what all that meant, when it happened again. This time, however, she saw precisely when something of the same nature emerged from behind the trees on the opposite side of the river, and came floating in the air with fluidity. As she suspected, it indeed was a word of smoke that came in the air pushed by the wind.

And it wasn't just a random word.

Her heart was beating fast when Daphne read her own name in golden smoke letters. It came floating and dissipated when Daphne reached for it.

Daphne then knew she wasn't alone.

“Is someone out there?” She shouted, and waited. Her wait wasn't long.

She gasped when she saw him stepping aside from behind a tree. Daphne squinted her eyes, myopic, mistrusting her own eyesight.

The shadow stepped into the moonlight glow.

The other times she had seen him, he was always half hidden behind the oak tree on the Chases' ground. Now that he was closer, Daphne confirmed her suspicion that he was nothing more than a dark, masculine silhouette, truly like a tall man's shadow.

For nearly a year he had watched her window, tireless. Daphne knew he was there for her, for only her eyes could see him. None of her brothers, who always played outside, ever acknowledged that shadow's presence, even though Daphne could see very well that he was there.

He took another step forward, and looked like he was going to step into the lake; but, instead of stepping in the water, he hovered over it and landed on the bank where Daphne was. Scared, she quickly retreated to the border of the clearing.

“Do not come any closer!” Daphne shouted at him, and the shadow – which really wasn't a proper shadow, but simply a dark, faceless body – obeyed her order immediately. “You've never dared talk with me. What do you want now?” A terrible thought occurred to her. With a choking voice, Daphne said, “Are you here because I really am going crazy?”

The shadow raised a hand. Daphne noticed that his constitution, observing how mist and the pale moon glow surrounded him, was even more subtle than she had thought.

He started writing in the air with his forefinger, above his head, and words of golden smoke, very bright, gradually appeared.

“You are not crazy,” he wrote.

“Who are you?” Daphne asked.

He stepped aside and continued writing in the air.

“I've been called many names throughout the centuries: Muse, imagination, daydream, creativity. I've been praised and neglected. I've given people everything they wanted, and also have taken away more than they wished to share. I've inspired heavenly days, and an equal amount of destruction. I'm the letters you write in sorrow and in happiness. I'm the voice in the back of your head, and the dreams you see when asleep and awake.”

“I've taken many shapes,” he wrote, and turned into the most beautiful woman, and then into a lark, and then back into a shadow. “But to you, this is what I am for now.”

“You mean I think creativity looks like a shadow?”

“Yes,” he wrote. “Because you've just begun your career. While insecurity dwells in your mind, I'll be just a silhouette.”

“You know I want to be a writer!” She said, and dared walk back closer to him.

“Of course,” he wrote, “and that is precisely why I am here. When the artist is ready, creativity comes after him. In this case. . . her.”

“Is that why you've been observing me? I've seen you in Lavinia, standing on the other side of the river day after day for almost a year. I thought I was going crazy. And then I started to actually cherish your presence. No one else in my family could see you.”

“Yes,” he wrote, and hesitated before he continued writing. “I needed to know whether you are ready for our deal.”

“Which deal?” Daphne asked, alarmed, for 'deal' was the word she mistrusted the most.

“I like to make deals now and then. If you agree, I'll give you eternal inspiration. I'll give you glory. I'll give you fame. I'll make your name immortal.”

Daphne was taken aback.

“I see,” Daphne said, trying to regain composure. “But I suppose your services have a price.”

“Yes,” the shadow wrote.

“What is it? What do I have to give you in exchange?”

“A kiss,” he wrote, and the word shone brighter than all others he had written so far.

“Never!” Daphne shouted, indignantly. “I won't kiss you!”

“Why not?” He wrote.

“Well, because I believe a kiss is not something that should be on sale. I can't simply give it to you. If you've observed me enough, you'd know by now I'm not that kind of person. Besides, I – I've never kissed anyone. I want to give my first kiss to someone I truly care for,” she said, and protectively hugged herself. “Why do you need a kiss, anyway? Can't you just help me out of – I dunno. . . goodwill?”

“Today, I'm just a shadow,” he wrote, “and I need to know you love me. Without your love, I won't help you.”

“That's pathetic!” Daphne said, annoyed. “Has anyone ever accepted your deal?”

“Search in all canons, in history books, in museums, and cinemas, and in art galleries, and you shall find all my lovers,” he wrote.

Daphne rubbed her forehead.

“Well, if you thought I'd fall for you, you're wrong. This is a foolish deal. I'm positive I can succeed without your help. I, in fact, already see things without your help. Today there was a storm cloud above my head, and only I was able to see it. Now that I know I'm not going crazy, I'm more confident to return to school and start writing. My brain is already full of ideas. I know I'll finish writing soon, then I'll leave this town.”

“I'll wait for you,” he wrote.

“Don't,” Daphne said, and spun on her heels to leave. “I won't kiss you. Ever!” She shouted, and left the clearing bursting with excitement and imprudent confidence.

Leaving the woods was easier than Daphne thought it would be. It was like her legs remembered the paths she took earlier. She didn't need to ponder about where to go. She was, in fact, distracted with her own thoughts, proud of herself that Creativity had chosen her for a deal, despite her own disinclination to accept it. She felt very vain, and vanity wasn't something she experienced every day.

Instead of going straight to the dorms, she decided to rest under the gazebo. Despite her headache, hunger and exhaustion, and the little self-complacent thoughts that now and then distracted her from reality, she needed to ponder about what to do next time – because she was certain there would be next times – she met Caleb. She wanted to be.

She had barely sat down, when she heard someone calling her name. She was then startled to see Ben running toward her.

Uninvited, the boy sat on the floor in front of her with his legs crossed. Under the pale glow of the gazebo's lamp, his serious expression looked rather melancholy.

Daphne sighed, tense, waiting for him to begin talking.

“I saw when you came here,” he said, finally breaking the silence.

“It seems as if today was the day for everyone to stalk me,” Daphne let slip, slightly annoyed, but Ben's confused look left her feeling immediately guilty.

“Sorry,” she said, and vigorously rubbed her forehead to alleviate her headache. “I had a bad day. You probably know why.”

“No, I actually didn't know you had a bad day,” Ben said, getting overly alarmed like he always did the few times she seemed troubled. “How are you? Can I help you with something?”

Daphne couldn't help thinking that Ben seemed way too friendly; but, strangely, she saw truth in his words. He was not only genuinely interested in her well-being, but he also didn't seem to know about her encounter with Caleb.

For a few seconds she wondered whether she should tell him what had happened, but she decided it was better to say nothing. If Caleb is going to tell everything to him later, Daphne thought, then the gossiper in this story will be only him.

“Don't worry. It was nothing,” Daphne said, and tried to sound confident. “You wanted to say something, right? What is it?” She asked, but before he could start talking, she cut in. “Actually, I guess I should say something first, if you don't mind.”

“Of course not. Go ahead,” Ben said with a sheepish smile.

“Um, Ben. . . I – I'd like to apologize.”

He nervously raised his hands to stop her.

“You don't have to apologize.”

“No. I do, I do. . . Really. Let me finish, 'cause this is killing me.”

“Okay,” He said, uncertain.

“I was a jerk to you,” Daphne said, and Ben looked as if he disagreed, but remained silent. “The way I treated you was unforgivable. I lied to you, when all you were trying to do was to. . . well, to help me, I guess.”

Ben was again alarmed.

“Who said that?”

“Who said what?”

“I wasn't trying to help you. What do you mean? I was – All right, I won't interrupt again. Please, continue.”

“Well, the way I treated you wasn't fair. I don't know how to explain this, but I think the way our friendship was progressing scared – I mean, startled me. That's why, I guess, I ran away. I'm not trying to justify my behavior, of course, but – Um. . . I guess that's how I felt and why I lied to you.”

“Were you confused, then?”

“Yes,” she said, although she didn't know exactly in which way she felt confused.

“Me too,” Ben confessed, blushing, and laughed nervously. “I understand you. You don't need to apologize. We barely know each other, but I already can tell you're a nice girl, and I liked hanging out with you. I guess you need more time to get to know me. Yeah, I was looking for you to apologize, but let's forget all that happened. Let's just continue being friends. . . and. . . and we'll see what happens.”

His rambling left her dizzy. Or, rather, not having food in her stomach did. But Daphne was certain that his excitement had a strange affect on her. She shook her head to clear her mind.

“Wait, no,” she said, abruptly.

Ben blinked, confused. And looked rather silly, too, with a petrified smile on his face.

“I wanted to apologize,” Daphne said, and added with all courage she had been able to build up, “but I also wanted to say that I don't think – I'm sorry, Ben, but I don't think we should continue being friends.”

His smile vanished.

“What do you mean?” He asked in a low voice.

“I mean that – well, I. . .”

“That's Okay,” he cut in and abruptly stood up to leave, “you don't have to say anything.”

Daphne was frozen until she realized he was leaving without hearing her excuses.

“Wait!” She said, running up to him, and he turned to her with one of those smiles that we now and then put on to hide how bad we actually feel. “Have I – have I offended you?”

“No,” he said, and the tense smile in his face persisted. “Why would I feel offended? I'm not. You said we shouldn't be friends. I think we should. But if you don't want to, there's nothing else I could do, right? So, why let you go through the humiliation of apologies and excuses you don't want to make? No, Daphne, I don't want that for you. You already had a bad day, and I don't want to make it worse. I need to go now. Good luck with everything!”

Daphne felt awful watching him walk away. Her entire body was trembling.

That wasn't the type of life she had envisioned. That roller-coaster of feelings wouldn't do any good to her work as a writer. All she wanted in her life was peace of mind to write a story.

“I guess it's better if we just end everything here,” she murmured to herself. She wanted to forget him. “I'm too busy, and having someone like him around would distract me from my writing. Yes, I must focus on what's important. And if Caleb starts bothering me, I'll ignore him. I'll be stronger than I was last time, and I shall punch him again if he annoys me too much.”

The thought of their scuffling worsened her headache. She had never fought anyone, and wasn't exactly proud of that first aggressive maneuver on her part, but would repeat it if necessary.

She left the gazebo feeling confident in herself. But, after dinner, she couldn't write. The words didn't feel right as the thought of Ben. She regained her enthusiasm by the time she went to bed and started thinking about her meeting with Creativity. She had never been so bold like the way she had spoken with him and refused the agreement. Perhaps, after all, she wasn't as insecure as she thought herself to be.

When she entered the world of dreams, she was greeted by the most terrifying nightmares – those that have no images, just oppressive feelings – and woke up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat.

April again wasn't in the room, and Daphne was starting to doubt whether she had a roommate at all. She went to her desk and tried to write, but feeling sleep-deprived shadowed her thoughts.

Feeling angry with herself, Daphne walked to the window and peeked from behind a curtain. The sun was rising, but there was no promise of better days. Creativity was standing outside by a lamppost, watching her window.

“Are you ready for our deal?” He wrote in bright words.

Weeks had gone by without Daphne being able to start her book, and the truth is that the more time went by, the more school obligations piled up.

Daphne was always busy with her homework, with the readings she needed to do every night, and the papers she had to write now and then. She soon found herself a very productive student, though kept from her private projects.

Creativity continued standing outside Sampson Hall, and students every day walked by him oblivious to his watchful presence.

Even though Daphne tried to hide it, she knew he was aware of her problems with writing. Proof of Creativity's omniscience came one particularly tiresome morning when she was dragging herself to class. Daphne noticed that he had gained a mouth – a very thin mouth, with lips distorted into a large, cynical smile.

“Why do you insist on prolonging your suffering, Daphne Chase?” He asked, when she walked past him. Daphne was startled that his voice was like Caleb's. “If you accept our deal, I will give you what you wish the most.”

She knew he couldn't erase people's memories. So, she ignored him.

From that day on, Daphne started to look for shelter in Marie's literary kingdom. Despite the Sphinx's hysterical laughter whenever it saw her, it was better to be there than to be on campus.

On a cold when day Daphne was feeling particularly lonely, she ran to the bookstore.

Tired, Daphne dropped on a chair and sat looking at the row of books by her head. She was in the back of the store, hidden in the writing corner Marie had introduced to her. She did not see Marie when she walked in, but Daphne already felt open to walk in without announcing her presence.

Isadora was there, and Daphne greeted her with a melancholy nod.

Daphne took off her notebook and got ready to write, but looking at blank pages intimidated her. She took a deep breath and tried to build up courage to write in that stressful day, but her words didn't flow. It was like they were stuck somewhere in a muddy, swampy area of her mind.

Frustrated, Daphne banged her head a few times on her notebook.

She closed her eyes, falling in temptation to take a nap, when she felt someone gently touched her shoulders.

“Isadora?” Daphne asked in a choked voice, and didn't dare to look back.

“No, it's Marie,” Marie calmly said.

Daphne turned quickly and was greeted by Marie's amused smile. She felt slightly better, as Marie had a way of smiling that brightened up even the gloomiest days.

“I thought I heard the door,” Marie said. “I was right.”

“I'm back,” Daphne said with a sheepish smile.

“How's your writing today?” Marie asked, and Daphne blushed. She knew Marie had seen her desperation.

“Nonexistent,” Daphne said.

“Did creativity refuse to work with you today?”

Daphne's heart skipped a beat. She knew Marie was just joking, but she couldn't help feeling uneasy at the thought of the smiling shadow waiting for her outside her residence hall.

“It's more like the other way around.”

Marie's mouth fell open in her dramatic portrayal of surprise. It was like Daphne had said blasphemous words.

“Why did you refuse creativity's help? You are a writer!”

“Because I prefer doing things on my own.”

Marie eyed her with suspicion.

“If you prefer working alone, chérie, good luck,” she said, serious, and then crossed her arms over her chest. “But I can't help feeling you shouldn't be alone.”

“But I'm not alone,” Daphne instinctively lied.

“How's your situation with that boy?”

“Which boy?”

“That one from your hometown.”

“The same as last time you asked. Nonexistent.”

Marie raised an eyebrow.

“Nonexistent like your writing,” Marie repeated.

Daphne was getting more and more uncomfortable with that conversation. She had not seen neither Ben nor Caleb since the day she had met Creativity.

“Yes,” Daphne said, and tried to remain calm.

“How are your parents?” Marie asked her out of a sudden.

“I – I don't know. I hope they are fine,” Daphne hesitated. “I haven't talked with them since I moved to Middleton.”

“Why?” Marie asked her very surprised, and the judging tone in her voice left Daphne feeling awkward.

“Because I want to be independent,” Daphne said, uncertain. She thought Marie would be mad at her, but the blow never came. Marie simply stood there quietly watching her.

Daphne didn't want Marie to have a bad impression of her, so she told her about her problems at home, about her father's stubbornness and moodiness. He was always drunk on wine, demanded love and reciprocated none of it. There was something else, but Daphne didn't feel like she could ever tell her secret to anybody, not even to Marie.

When she was done talking, she felt like crying. That was the first time she opened up to a stranger about her family. Although, Marie wasn't a stranger anymore. She was, in fact, slowly turning into Daphne's only friend in Middleton.

“You need to be more patient,” Marie told her. “I believe your father is just trying to do what he thinks is the best for his family. I recognize fathers and mothers do make mistakes. C'est la vie. Right? I must tell you, Daphne, that being independent doesn't mean keeping your parents from knowing how you're doing here. I have a son, too,” Marie said, and her big, black eyes sparkled. “He is about your age.”

“Oh, where is he?” Daphne asked and instinctively looked at the staircase expecting Marie to say that he would be upstairs.

“Émile is traveling. He left two years ago. That boy is too restless, he has the heart of a gypsy. We used to call him Gitan when he was a kid. He liked to explore everything when we moved to this country from France.”

“I'm sorry. . .”

“Sorry, why sorry? No sorry. The wind is taking care of him, and the same way that it sent him away, it will also bring him back when the right time comes.”

“The right time?” Daphne asked, confused.

“Yes. When he's learned everything that life wanted to teach him, when he's seen everything he wanted to see.”

Daphne smiled.

“I like the way you talk,” she said. “My father would never talk like you. He's too stubborn to understand that I'm not a kid anymore, that I want to see the world, even though it – well, even though it is quite scary. He didn't approve of my wish to major in creative writing.”

“I assure you Mr. Chase is very proud of your decision to come to McAdams against his will. Wasn't that the plot of his novel The White Wolf? The girl, what was her name? Oh, yes, Cassandra, wanted to move to a big town to be a poet. Her father was against her leaving, but he secretly liked to see how independent his daughter was.”

Daphne frowned. Up until then, she had not noticed the similarity between her life and Cassandra's. A spark of home almost shone in her heart, and then she remembered that Abelard always preached about developing characters that showed nothing of himself.

“If you say so,” Daphne said, shrugging.

“Why don't you give him a call? You're probably driving your parents crazy without information.”

Daphne didn't want to continue talking about her parents.

“Where's Émile?” Daphne asked out of the blue, more than ready to change the subject.

“Probably far away, because I couldn't find him nearby. He often sends letters that at least let me know he is fine. Like you, he is pursuing his independent life.” Marie said calmly. “Why, though, is it so important for you that you write your book away from home?”

Daphne instinctively knew that at least for now she shouldn't insist on talking about Émile, despite how strange it was that Marie didn't know where her son was and so stoically talked about his absence.

“Because my father is too big. He is the hero of his generation, after all,” Daphne said, embarrassed for telling the truth. “Well, you know my writing isn't going well. I feel I've lost my identity, and I want to reclaim it through this book I'm working on.”

“I don't know why you think that writing this book will make you feel complete, but I wish you good luck. Don't forget, however, to first and foremost write for yourself. I'm not a writer, but all these really good writers at some point in their lives said something of the sort. Daphne's book shouldn't just be a quest to find this identity you say you've lost. Don't forget to have fun with it too. Write something that has meaning to you, like you did when you were twelve with Daphne's Book, and you'll see how writing will be easier and more enjoyable.\''”

Daphne nodded, melancholy. If only Marie knew the truth.

Chapter 8
Abstract chapter design

A month later, in mid-October, Daphne's novel still wasn't flowing. In fact, it hasn't begun. But, still, she kept going to The Sphinx, where she could at least do her homework.

Marie had turned into a great friend, into a maternal figure in Daphne's new life. She respected Marie's wisdom, and although it required a lot of patient to hear Marie's constant admonitions, Daphne knew that all her friend did was to protect her. She was always encouraging Daphne to be happy, since she could not understand how a young girl like her could be happy with no friends who were her age, without youth in her life.

Their growing friendship also allowed Daphne to know more about Marie's son.

Although it was strange he left his mother and friends behind, he kept in contact with them. Daphne had seen Marie, at least, receiving letters from him a few times. Now and then she read a letter out loud for Daphne.

My dear mother, I wish you were here to join this universe I've turned into my house. Here, there is freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom to cry and sing. They told me you're welcome to join us. Would you believe that they also learned to call me Gitan? Love, – your Èmile.

Although he often spoke of a place he had learned to cherish and love, he never said where he was.

Daphne wondered where the boy could be, and even Marie could not precise. His letters were often brought by strangers, visitors, passersby going through Middleton, people who did not seem interested in talking, explaining, or giving more than they had to offer. Marie had learned to respect the conditions of their communication, and wrote back to him whenever he indicated in his letter that the messenger would be taking letters back to him.

“I am sure you wouldn't look so sad if you were just like my Gitan,” Marie said out of a sudden on a dull afternoon without customers, as Daphne tried to write. “He was always surrounded by youth!”

“Believe me, I spend the day surrounded by youth,” Daphne replied. “It is everywhere and I am tired of it. It is uninvited in my bedroom, in all corridors and classrooms at McAdams, at parks and on the streets of Middleton and even occasionally intruding in The Sphinx!”

“You're a strange child, Daphne Chase. I've never heard of a young woman who wanted to live in a world inhabited only by old people!”

Daphne refused to go to parties and even to the well-behaved social gatherings. She sacrificed her curiosity to explore Middleton and the nearby rural towns, everything in the name of focusing on writing. Her loyalty to this novel, unfortunately, had been poorly paid. Her own writing had failed her and she was becoming increasingly afraid of never accomplishing her goal.

“Why do you force your words into existence so aggressively?” Marie asked, peeking from behind a bookshelf, after she witnessed Daphne throw her notebook away from her.

Daphne blushed, startled to see her friend standing there.

“What do you mean?” Daphne asked, and rubbed her forehead to soothe her anger.

“I thought you liked to write,” Marie said, calmly, and then picked up Daphne's notebook.

“But I do! It's just that –.”

“Don't lie to yourself. This book is killing you, isn't it?” Marie asked.

“Of course not. I'm just – I'm just not very inspired today,” Daphne lied and got her notebook back.

“I'm not the most experienced person, but all these books around you did not come easily,” Marie said and pointed at the bookshelves near Daphne. “Writing a novel is like planting seeds and patiently waiting for them to grow at their own pace. If you force them into growing, you'll end up digging them up before they were barely able to force their way up the soil. Now, listen to me. Plant the seeds, take care of them so your plantation will be healthy, and wait for them to grow. Then, when is the time to harvest, you'll see the result you're seeking.”

“I don't think I'm very good at – um, at waiting,” Daphne said in a broken voice.

I've waited for too many years.

“Then don't wait. Just do your writing, and when you feel you already did your best that day, forget everything about it, and go live your life.”

“Marie, I hope you know that farming and writing aren't done the same way. It's not like you're saying. If I'm not constantly with pen and paper, my novel will not just pop up! I need to be always writing to get this book done.”

“One day you'll learn that in order to get certain goals done in this world, the ones that require all your passion and strength, you'll need to force yourself to walk away from them before you sacrifice your own identity to feed your project's needs. Mishandled projects turn into anthropophagous monsters.”

Daphne tried not to laugh. Marie tended to exaggerate. That afternoon she was more excited in particular to get Daphne to go out, because her son had sent her a letter, and she wanted Daphne to be as happy as he was.

“How is he?” Daphne asked, desperate to change the subject.

“Oh, he is fine. I think he is fine,” Marie said, a little surprised, and smiled. She held the letter as careful as if she was holding her son's life. “I think he's found his mission.”

Marie always looked proud when she talked about him.

“Marie, you always say this. Mission. What do you mean by that? Why do you say that Èmile found his mission?”

“I mean that he's found a reason to live,” Marie said confidently.

“A reason to live? Was he suicidal?”

“Oh, no! No, not my Gitan!” Marie said and closed her eyes for a few seconds as if blessing her son, wherever he was.

“I'm sorry,” Daphne said, blushing. “I just don't understand when you say that we should always try to find out what our mission is. I mean, it sounds as if people's roles in society and their lives perhaps were more important than we think.”

“But that's exactly what I think! You need to follow your mission, because your role is meaningful.”

“To be honest I think that most of us live rather meaningless lives,” Daphne said. “I mean, look at me.”

Marie briskly walked toward Daphne, which startled her.

“Watch your words. Your life is not meaningless. There aren't meaningless lives. We are here for a reason, and it is our duty to find out what it is. Once you find out what your mission is, you'll realize that to live is a true blessing,” she told Daphne.

“Do you think my mission is to write?” Daphne asked. She felt her whole body was trembling.

“Well,” Marie said, and pondered for a few seconds, “I've known you for just a month, but to me it feels as if I've known you for ages. I want to see you happy, and I do like to think that, for as long as you live in Middleton, I'll be your mother here. I feel I can be as open to you as I am to my Gitan, so I'm not sure your mission is to write.”

Daphne was surprised.

“You don't?”

“No, I don't. I do feel that you need and should be writing, but to me it feels as if writing is just the means to achieve something else in your life.\'' Marie was aware that was a very delicate subject, but continued talking nonetheless. ‘Oh, Daphne, don't worry. You'll get your novel done. You know what you're doing. But what I meant is that I feel there's something out there waiting for you. Something, perhaps, that has to do with writing, but will help you achieve something else,’ Marie explained.”

“I am not sure I agree with you,” Daphne said and stood up to leave. She did not want to hurt Marie's feelings, but leaving would be a way to keep herself from doing so.

“Please, forget what I said!” Marie said. “Simply follow your heart. That's all you should do.”

“Oh, I'm fine, don't worry,” Daphne said. She was caught off guard by Marie's pleading tone. “I'm leaving just because it's getting late and I should go back to McAdams.”

Marie sighed. “I just want you to be happy, that's all. There's a lot more out there that I feel you're missing.”

“I know. Don't worry, I'll be fine,” Daphne said, quickly, and after hugging Marie, left The Sphinx.

As Daphne walked back to McAdams, although she tried to distract her mind with other thoughts, she couldn't help thinking about everything that Marie had said to her. She felt a little guilty for leaving abruptly, but it was better than staying and end up offending her with a snappy reply.

What was she thinking? Did she want Daphne to start going to the many parties on campus that she deeply disliked? What could she learn from social situations that displeased her? Did she want her to simply forget her goals, to stop writing at all, and to live the reckless life that today's youth seemed to praise? Thank you, Marie, for giving your opinion, but I'm not interested in changing my lifestyle.

Daphne had just entered the road that led to Sampson Hall when, to her surprise, she noticed a familiar figure seating on a bench nearby. When she saw her, Daphne instinctively hid behind a tree.

What could Tammy Molina possibly be doing here?

She wondered whether she should remain hiding or continue walking to her dorm. If she stayed hiding behind that tree, she felt she would be confirming her own weakness. She was, although she couldn't precise why, unsure about talking with Tammy. If she ignored her fears and continued walking toward Sampson Hall, by the time she walked past Tammy, she would have to acknowledge her presence. Just the thought of a mere cold greeting, though, made Daphne tremble.

Before she could decide what to do, however, Tammy made the first move.

“Daphne?” she heard a woman's voice addressing her name.

“What? Yes, yes!” Daphne said, blushing, and awkwardly shook Tammy's hand.

“How are you? Long time no see!” Tammy said and her words sounded awfully rehearsed.

“Yes, long time no see. I'm fine, thanks. And how are you?”

“I'm fine,” Tammy replied, dryly.

“How's the boy?”

“He's great. Strong and very restless. He's with my sister right now,” she said.

Her tone, as Daphne paid more attention, was still melodious and raspy.

“That's good!”

“Yes, and – um, I wanted to say thank you that you found my son when he disappeared.”

“Oh, don't worry. The others were looking for him too.”

Daphne, until then, had not realized that Tammy had never thanked her.

“Yes, that was a strange night. Wasn't it? I actually – um, wanted to apologize for – you know – Esther.”

“Don't worry! I understand you were – well, all of us, we were going through a lot. But I'm glad to know that you're fine and Andre is fine.”

Tammy smiled and nodded. Daphne waited for Tammy to say goodbye, but she simply stayed silent for a few awkward seconds.

“Well,” Daphne finally broke the silence, “I should go now. I live right there!” and she pointed at the white building with an imposing stately architecture not too far from where they were, where she could also see Creativity watching her with curiosity, as he now had huge, inquisitive eyes. But, of course, Tammy couldn't see him.

“Oh, please, wait!” Tammy said looking a bit startled. “I actually was waiting for you. I was hoping we could talk for a few minutes?”

Daphne raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“You were waiting for me? How did you –?”

“Ben told me you lived here,\'' Tammy cut in. ‘I heard you don't have a cell phone, so I thought I should just wait for you.’ ”

Daphne did, but she strategically dropped it in front of her house on the way to the bus station the day she moved to Middleton.

“Ben told you I live here?”

“Yes, he did,” Tammy said, and quickly changed the subject. “Is there a place where we could talk privately?” She asked. Tammy was increasingly gaining control over the situation and more and more resembled the powerful woman she had looked like, once Andre was back, when Daphne met her.

Daphne, on the other hand, felt as if a vortex of strong emotions was taking over her. She didn't know what was more capable of distressing her: whether she was intimidated by Tammy or whether Ben still found ways in her life.

“My room, perhaps?” Daphne suggested.

Their midterm exams were approaching and Daphne then remembered that April had been studying and furiously trying to speak all the Italian she had not practiced in a month. From morning to evening whenever Daphne was in her room all she heard was buongiorno, some sobbed non posso, and a high dose of questa cosa è ridicola until April started crying and stormed away.

“No, actually, not in my room,” Daphne corrected herself, “my roommate is studying for her midterms.”

Tammy looked around, trying to think of a place where they could talk. As she thought, Tammy unconsciously bit her lower lip. When a drop of blood sprung without her noticing it, she looked at Daphne again.

“Yeah, I don't think there's privacy anywhere in a small school like McAdams,” she said and was a bit impatient. “Do you mind going to my house, then?”

“Your house?” Daphne said, surprised.

“Yes. Do you have a problem with that?”

Daphne promptly said that there was no problem at all. “I will study for my midterms later, then,” she added quickly.

Tammy blinked, indifferent, and with a little gesture indicated which way they should go.

The walk to Tammy's house felt like it was the longest in Daphne's life. Past the nervousness of meeting each other again, Tammy was mistress of herself again. And, in control of the situation, Tammy was then open to show that she wasn't very pleased in being around Daphne, although Daphne didn't know why; and, in her turn, Daphne felt inexplicably uneasy around Tammy.

If there is love at first sight, she thought, rubbing her forehead, there has to be hate at first sight as well.

Daphne, who always observed the world and the people around her very carefully, was aware of the strange situation she was walking into. Although she knew nothing good could come from a meeting with someone who clearly disliked her presence, she could not help feeling curious to know the reason why Tammy Molina had sought her.

Since both of them didn't know what to talk about – or, rather, didn't have interests in common to discuss – they turned to making remarks about the weather for support. It was the strangest conversation. Never two people in the world had so much to say about gray clouds.

Upon arriving at the street where Tammy lived, she recognized Tammy's house right away. Daphne instinctively looked for Esther Brown, but she wasn't there. Without the mysterious Esther around, Tammy's house looked less intimidating – and even normal – compared to the last time she had seen it. It was a dark red brick house, surrounded by a fence of tall iron bars, with large windows that let one see what seemed to be the living room.

Daphne waited for Tammy to open the gate and then followed her through the garden, where here and there a few sad looking flowers that had bloomed during summer still survived. When she walked up the steps that led to the front door, however, Daphne was surprised to find out a black sign that said in golden letters: The Franks' Inn.

“The Franks' Inn?” She murmured to herself.

As she opened the door, Tammy explained in a monotonous manner that the inn belonged to her grandparents, Tobias and Margaret Frank, and she helped them run the place.

When they walked in, Andre went running toward Tammy and grabbed her legs. Tammy laughed and picked the boy up. She was, Daphne thought, quite a different person when with her son.

“Did you take a shower this afternoon?” She asked him.

“No!” Andre said, offended.

“Why not?” Tammy asked him.

“Because he said he would take a shower only if you helped him,” a young lady who had just entered the living room said.

She was tall and very pale, and her long dark hair contrasted with her complexion. She walked in a languid manner and her melodious tone of voice was just like Tammy's.

“Andre, I told you to obey aunt Jane,” Tammy said, but Andre's reaction was to make a face to his aunt.

Jane replied the same way, which surprised the boy and made him laugh.

“I think I'll have to take care of this, then. Um, do you mind waiting a few minutes?” Tammy asked Daphne. “He's a little sick and it's getting late.”

“Yes, sure, I'll wait,” Daphne said and smiled at Andre, who looked shy and smiled back. He had recognized her. Tammy then promptly left with Andre. And Daphne, who didn't know where she should wait for her, stood there looking confused.

Jane, who had been observing everything in silence, rolled her eyes.

“She never showed any consideration for anybody,” she said, “besides her son.” She stretched out a hand to greet Daphne. “Jane Frank. I'm Tammy's sister.”

“I'm Daphne Chase.”

“Ah, so you are the famous Daphne Chase! You can't imagine the headache you've been causing us. If I were you, I'd run away from here right now.”

Jane was no more than fifteen years old, but although her tone suggested that she was just trying to pull a prank, Daphne felt goosebumps.

“What?” Daphne asked and tried to smile to look less nervous.

“Precisely what you heard. And I'll tell you something else: you're in serious danger here,” Jane said, and her black eyes sparked reflecting the fireplace.

“Jane!” Tammy shouted from the top of the staircase. “Could you come up here, please?”

“Just a minute!” Jane shouted back. Before she left, she told Daphne in a whisper: “If you are suicidal, then make yourself at home. There are cookies by the fireplace; they are very tasty. My grandmother baked them. See, she likes baking desserts even though she shouldn't be overexerting herself. Oh well. If you love your life, run away. Leave Middleton as soon as possible!”

Daphne looked at her, surprised, but before she could ask anything, Jane darted away.

Alone in the living room, Daphne looked around and rubbed her forehead feeling impatient with herself. She had scratched it so many times that day that it was starting to feel sore.

A lightning flash lit up the room and the sound of thunder echoing through the house startled her. From a window, Daphne could see that a storm was coming. In the garden, dry red and yellow leaves were falling from a tree.

Daphne walked about the room with her arms crossed over her chest, and observed the many paintings of landscapes on the walls. Most of them were overly gloomy, with nature portrayed in gray and black shades. There was only one, though, that had more light than all paintings she had seen there; it was one of a guitar player surrounded by listeners, and everything about him was yellow, and his intensity shone a golden hue on the people around him, like a sun illuminating that world.

She was surprised to see that all paintings were signed Tammy Frank. They were very good.

Daphne's heart was pounding all the time she waited there. She didn't know what to do. She didn't know what to think. She wanted to know how Jane had recognized her name and why she had made such creepy admonition, but part of her constantly reminded her that Jane was a teenager and probably had joked.

She dropped on the couch by the fireplace and placed her backpack next to her. Lightning lit the living room once again, but this time thundering didn't catch her off guard. Outside, rain fell in thick drops and beat against the windows and the roof aggressively.

Daphne's mind wandered to Abelard. It was almost like her father was intently trying to communicate with her telepathically. If that was possible.

“Can you hear me, Dad?” Daphne said under her breath. “Can you hear me?” She tried to establish communication, but when she realized she didn't know what to say to him, she stopped trying with an anguished sigh, and distracted herself with staring at the flames licking the logs in the fireplace.

While she waited for Tammy Molina, the storm threatened to bring the inn down. In that small and spooky living room, the shadows of the objects danced on the walls. One of the shadows was of herself, in fact.

Daphne raised a hand, and the shadow waved back at her. Daphne tried to make a butterfly with her hands. She saw it form on the wall.

“Am I interrupting you?” Tammy asked her, and the butterfly flew away down the hall.

“No, I was –,” Daphne said in a faltering voice, and realized that she was having trouble breathing. “I was. . .”

Tammy cut in, impatient. “Well, I'm done helping Andre. Do you mind coming upstairs to my room? Grandpa and Grandma are in the office right now, and they already had a full day of work. I don't want them to know that you're here, otherwise they would want to help and forget to eat. Staying in the living room would also be a problem. There aren't many people in the inn right now, but it is an inn after all. We want some privacy. ‘’ ”


Daphne followed Tammy.

The lights were on upstairs, but they were so weak that the corridors were poorly lit. All doors were closed. The sound of rain up there, Daphne also noticed, was very distant, almost inexistent. Daphne thought that the whole house seemed to be strangely asleep, sad in that muffled environment. Tammy walked to a door. It had a small number 5 painted on it. She opened it with a large, old key that she took from her pocket and let Daphne in.

Tammy's room was simple. Very simple, actually, and it did not look like the style Daphne was expecting to find. There was something very elegant, something that closely resembled the manners of royalty, in the way Tammy talked. Even when she was aggressive, even when she was inattentive, Tammy knew how to naturally behave as if she was above everyone else around her. Daphne had thought she would find pomp and an exquisite taste, but surprisingly encountered simplicity. She didn't know what to make of these discrepancies.

By the right wall, there was an old looking small, dark wardrobe, and on the opposite side there was a desk with many sheets of paper and what seemed to be old sketches on it. Maybe that cloudy afternoon was to blame, even though Tammy had turned the lights on, but Daphne thought that her room was equally sad compared to the rest of the house.

Tammy pulled a chair to Daphne and sat on the bed, facing her. Daphne couldn't help thinking that in that room Tammy looked like a mere guest. Her personality was in nothing, except perhaps in the dusty drawings placed on the neglected looking desk behind Daphne, or maybe in the red sweater on her unmade bed.

“So? You wanted to talk with me?” Daphne asked and her voice sounded a little hoarse.

“Abelard Chase called us,” Tammy said calmly.

“What? My – my father called you? Why would he call you?” Daphne said, and felt that her heart beat was getting increasingly faster.

“He asked us to book a room for you here. He said that a rustic inn in a small town like Middleton would do you good,” Tammy said, monotonously. “He said that a promising writer like you shouldn't live in a dorm at a school of brainwashers and brainwashed.”

“He didn't do that,” Daphne said more to herself than to Tammy, whose blue eyes sparked offended.

“So you think I'm lying?”

“No, no. That's not what I meant. I'm just. . . surprised.”

Daphne, however, was more than surprised. She was on the verge of a syncope.

Tammy raised an eyebrow.

“And there's more.”

More?” Daphne cut in.

“Yes. More. Mr. Chase wanted your room to be special. So, he sent half of his library for you so you could feel more at home. He also sent bookshelves. Many of them, in fact. We placed everything in your room like he asked. All of us helped, including my grandparents, who should not be worrying about such matters, but can't just sit and watch us work.”

“What? Dad's books are here?”

“He's also paying more for us to stay silent when you're writing. My grandfather even made a sign for you to hang on your door when you're working. I believe that should be enough, unless you prefer something more official. If you give me your writing schedule, I'll distribute it to everyone here.”

“My writing schedule?”

“Yesterday, your father got permission from the dean at McAdams for you to leave the dorms. Your room here is ready. You can move in whenever you want. Just let me know when you're ready to check in. Do you have any questions?”

Daphne was overwhelmed and didn't know where to begin. She rubbed her forehead a few times, but stopped when she accidentally cut herself with a fingernail.

“This is – very, very surprising,” she said hesitantly.

Tammy crossed her arms over her chest, and eyed Daphne with curiosity.

“How did he – how did he do all this?” Daphne asked, uncertain whether she should tell Tammy she had not spoken with Abelard since the day she moved to Middleton.

“He called us a week ago and asked my grandparents to find you at McAdams and get everything settled,” Tammy said, and her voice showed she was getting uneasy. “Middleton is a small town, you know. It's not like we were stalking you. But, if you're unhappy with how things are, I suggest you call your father and solve everything, because my grandparents shouldn't have to deal with so many things.”

Daphne was more nauseous than she thought she could handle, and asked to be excused for a minute. Annoyed, Tammy indicated the way to the restroom.

In the inn's bathroom, Daphne didn't bother turning the lights on. A small window with fogged glass was enough to let in the amount of sunlight that gloomy afternoon allowed. It was still raining, and Daphne observed for a few seconds the rain beating against the window.

Her heart was beating fast and she felt queasy.

She didn't understand why her father still intruded in her decisions so openly. McAdams was a residential school and it had been her choice to live in the dorms like everyone else did. It was part of being a college student. April wasn't the best roommate, true, but she still allowed Daphne the opportunity to have a complete college life. She didn't know what to do, what to say, how to solve this problem. She didn't want to move to Tammy's inn.

Daphne started pacing, but the more she thought about her situation, she realized how trapped she was. Her father had arranged everything to make her feel guilty about refusing this room. He had sent to Middleton his books, bookshelves, he had bothered people to decorate everything the way he wanted, even people who were not supposed to be engaged in this. He had paid, perhaps bribed, the whole inn to get her to live there. She couldn't just step away now. Jane was right; she should have run away when she still had time, when she still had a chance to escape.

The twentieth time Daphne turned as she paced, her stomach was even more nauseous. A furious headache was drilling in her brain and her legs were weaker than ever. Daphne ran to the toilet and threw up.

Time to leave the McAdams' dorms soon reached Daphne, and her departure was very celebrated by April with muffled laughter and long glances to Michelle and Janice. It was evident, Daphne noticed, that Michelle would become April's new roommate – a change in April's life that would cost her marital bliss, a few years ahead in the future, in a warm summer night. Daphne forbore telling it to her, for April didn't seem the type of person open to fortune-telling.

Marie Delbes, who always had a great predisposition to help, helped Daphne haul the rest of her belongings to the inn. She was of the opinion that Abelard had gone too far with everything he had done behind Daphne's back, but she couldn't hide her joy in having Daphne closer to her and the fact that the girl would finally have to mingle with people her own age.

The idea of moving to the inn had been a constant headache since Daphne heard of her father's arrangements, but at least she wouldn't be moving in on her own. She felt more secure that Marie was helping her, which in a way stated to everyone there that she wasn't alone in the world.

When they arrived, Tammy greeted them with her typical coldness, but Marie was indifferent to her sour manners and focused on playing with Andre. Marie would occasionally say a few words in French to him in an affable manner, and Tammy watched them closely.

Andre, oblivious to the tension in the air, took great delight in Marie's presence, and reached for her sparky jewelry with great interest.

“He looks like my Émile at this age,” Marie said while Daphne signed the necessary paperwork.

“Andre looks a lot like his father,” Tammy said out of the blue, defensively, and then averted her eyes as she regretted having said those words.

Daphne and Marie exchanged surprised looks.

While they were still in the office, Mr. and Mrs. Frank came in to greet Daphne. Marie turned out to be a happy surprise to them, and in response she hugged them tenderly.

“Daphne is like a daughter to me,” Marie told them with pride. “This girl has a heart of gold, so take really good care of her.”

“Yes, yes, we will,” they said with a smile.

They seemed to be the type of people someone would easily like at first sight. What mostly oppressed Daphne's heart, however, was their fragile appearance. Both of them were short, scrawny old creatures who looked like they could be blown away by the wind if not careful, and their hair was completely white. Mr. Frank's glasses were very thick, which made his blue eyes look smaller. He definitely was very myopic, like Daphne was bound to be.

Mr. Frank, who had very timid manners, told Daphne about the sign he had made. As he rummaged through a plastic bag to get it for her, Daphne raised a hand to stop him.

“Oh, no. It won't be necessary, Mr. Frank. And, please, I ask everyone to forget what my father said. I don't understand why he made that request. I assure you I'm not that capricious. I'm not a great writer to dare asking more than I deserve. Even if I were, I would never ask such thing.”

“You say you aren't?” Tammy asked and then took a book from a drawer. The sight of that familiar bright purple book made Daphne blush immediately. “Mr. Chase was kind enough to send it to us. I must say that I am impressed. When we met, nothing about you said you were famous, but I am glad your father explained your brilliant career path with such level of details.”

Daphne wanted the floor to open and swallow her. It would haven been way more pleasant than staying there in front of Tammy. As if her father's intruding behavior wasn't enough, Tammy Molina seemed to have entered her life to torture her.

Marie, fortunately, touched Daphne's shoulder in support and said in her usual sympathetic manner, “Daphne is too modest. The truth is that she is famous, yes, just like her father. The gift of writing runs in their blood. In intellectual groups they are very well known and well regarded, Tammy, but you wouldn't know that. It's understandable. You are a young mother, and you're busy working here, God bless you. But, as I was saying, Daphne is very modest, very humble, and prefers to live a simple life, far from the press and the fans.”

Daphne felt as if every inch of her body was frozen, including her thoughts.

Tammy blushed, averting eye contact with Marie, and quickly placed the book back in the drawer. Daphne could tell that she was furiously thinking of a good way to counter-attack, but she never did.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank, who had not noticed Tammy's uneasiness, were very impressed by Marie's words and applauded Daphne's work. They repeated many times that it was a big honor for them to have Daphne as their guest.

“We always have many students from McAdams College lodging with us,” Mrs. Frank said. “We try our best to make them feel at home. We like to eat our meals together in the dining room, and after dinner the students get together in the living room and sit by the fireplace to play games. Mr. Frank and I, I regret, can't always join, because we go to bed early.”

“Grandma grew up here,” Tammy said briskly, and then blushed again when she realized her words had been abrupt.

“Yes, I did,” Mrs. Frank said with a shy smile. “This was my parents' house, and I was born and grew up here. After their death, I inherited the house. It's now too big for us, so Tobias and I decided to turn it into an inn.”

“It is a beautiful house, Margaret,” Marie said.

“Why don't you come visit us, if you like it so much?”

Surprised, Marie turned to see who had addressed her in such straightforward manner.

Daphne felt tense as she waited for a new conflict to take place. But, past the surprise, there was enthusiasm as Marie hugged Jane as if they were old friends.

“Jane, oh chérie, you always look so beautiful. How are you?” Marie asked in a high-pitched voice that up until then Daphne had not heard before.

Je suis très bien,” Jane replied, and her eyes sparked.

“I'm going to take Daphne's suitcases upstairs,” Mr. Frank said, but before he could reach for a luggage, Jane stopped him.

“No, grandpa. That's my job,” she said, and promptly grabbed the handle of a bag.

“We don't want to bother you, Tobias,” Marie said with a smile. “Jane, Daphne and I can take care of everything. The bags aren't heavy, really. Don't worry.”

Tammy gave the room key to Daphne. It was an old, big key, and resembled Tammy's own room key.

Too restless to wait for Daphne, Marie and Jane strode out hauling Daphne's belongings, and whispering unintelligible words in French to each other.

“Room number eight,” Tammy said.

Daphne spun on her heels to leave, but stopped as she noticed that Mr. Frank looked a little sad and out of place in a work environment where people wouldn't let him work. His eyes were watery blue like Tammy's and they told Daphne that Tobias Frank, almost a century old, didn't want to become obsolete in his own house.

“Mr. Frank, thank you very much. I think I'll take the sign you made, just in case, if you don't mind,” Daphne said.

His eyes lit up, and clumsily he took the sign out of the plastic bag he was carrying and gave it to Daphne.

“I hope living with us will inspire you,” he said smiling.

Margaret Frank, who was standing next to him, nodded.

It was a wooden sign with a string so Daphne could hang it to the doorknob. The calligraphy of “do not disturb” was very pretty. So pretty that it broke the harshness of the request.

“Thank you,” Daphne said once again and left.

Daphne went up the stairs holding her backpack and found Marie and Jane waiting for her in the corridor. They confabulated in whispers with their heads close together like conspiring politicians. When they saw Daphne, they stopped talking and joined her, though without looking bothered by her presence.

“Room number eight,” Daphne told them.

“Ah, of course,” Jane said after rolling her eyes, “Tammy had to send you to the corner.”

Daphne's room was the last to the right, almost hidden, cornered by a bathroom and separated from the other rooms.

“Daphne, I'm not sure it's a good idea to let you stay here,” Marie whispered to her.

“Why not?” Daphne asked in the same tone of voice.

“Not after what Jane told me.”

“What's the matter?” Daphne asked and looked at Jane.

“You don't know my sister,” Jane said and looked annoyed. “Why didn't you listen to me when I told you to run away?”

Jane got the key and unlocked Daphne's room for her. She quickly entered the room, closely followed by Daphne and Marie, who used a cigarette lighter to light up the candles on Daphne's desk.

Daphne was shocked, for the room was almost a perfect copy of Abelard's office at home.

“It's a beautiful room,” Marie said.

Rushing to the window, Daphne opened up the curtains to let sunlight in. She, then, blew out the candles briskly.

“Your understanding of beauty is broken today, Marie. This is not beautiful.”

The room was small and packed with tall bookshelves made of dark wood. They were piled with books, and a quick glance was enough to show that Daphne would only find the major British Romantics there. She already hated those heavy curtains. They were as red as blood, and her bed sheets and a futon by the wardrobe were the same color. The desk had many parchments and even a conceited fountain pen placed on an open notebook as if simulating work left behind. All that, to Daphne's eyes, was almost a sacrilege. Ugly candlesticks, of course, gave the final touch to the environment. It was like going back in time.

“My sister despises you,” Jane said out of a sudden.

Daphne blinked a few times. Marie, standing by her, observed her with a preoccupied expression.

“Why?” Daphne asked. “We barely know each other.”

“You'll soon find out that how long you've known someone in a town like Middleton is of little importance in liking or disliking someone,” Jane said, distractedly observing the books behind her.

“What do you mean?”

Jane turned impatiently.

“Tammy despises you, that's all, no matter how much or how little she knows about you. What you need to know is that she thinks you're on her way.”

“I'm not on her way.”

“Oh, Daphne, I'm afraid you are,” Marie said, worried.

“My sister likes Ben,” Tammy said, and dropped on Daphne's bed as if it was her own.

Daphne's heart skipped a beat. She always felt strange when she heard his name, particularly at unexpected circumstances like that.

“Ben?” Daphne repeated. “You mean Ben Wallace?”

“Yes, him,” Jane said, lazily stretching in Daphne's bed.

“Why does her interest in him make her dislike me so much?” Daphne asked and glanced at Marie for support, but her friend only gave her a pained look.

“Did you know they've been friends since the day you guys arrived in Middleton? She's been after him since that day, in fact,” Jane said, distracted, as she adjusted the pillows under her head.

“So?” Daphne asked, trying to look indifferent, but deep inside she thought that was a strange revelation, since Ben, while they had hung out, had never mentioned he was in contact with Tammy.

Jane gave up on the pillows and sat up, annoyed.

“Oh, please, don't tell me you've never noticed that Ben had a big crush on you. When he came to this inn all he talked about was you.”

“Ben lives here?” Daphne asked, surprised.

“Yes. His friend does too.”

“That can't be true. . .”

“I lost count of the many times Ben asked me for advice on how to apologize to an offended girl. I, of course, soon made him confess your name and what he felt for you. And all that was no secret to Tammy.”

“Tammy is afraid you'll steal him back, Daphne,” Marie added.

Daphne looked from Jane to Marie, angry. She was almost certain they were pulling a prank on her. Tired of being humiliated, she would tolerate nothing else.

“Nonsense!” Daphne said, and blushed in annoyance.

“I knew she would be mad,” Marie told Jane, who stood up alarmed.

“We're trying to help you, Daphne,” Jane said, desperate.

Daphne hated when people tried to help her. Even the word 'help' disgusted her.

“I don't need any help. Why can't people stop intruding in my life? And tell your sister that I have nothing to do with that boy. We had absolutely nothing!” Daphne shouted at them.

“No one here said you had something. The point is that he did want to be with you, then you pushed him away, and now you'll live under the same roof. You don't know how many things my sister did to sabotage your coming to the inn. She even broke your bed!” Jane said and then lifted the blanket to show that the legs of Daphne's bed were made of a different type of wood. “We had to fix this.”

“Why did she book my room, then?”

“Oh, she didn't. Grandpa booked your room. He answered the phone when your father called.”

Daphne instinctively took a step back. Was it true that Ben had feelings for her? That couldn't be possible, and even sounded a little ridiculous. He had never said anything to her.

“But she went to McAdams looking for me. It was Tammy who brought me to the inn.”

“She runs the inn. Besides, she got a lot of money from your father to go looking for you. I suppose she took it for Andre, after all she needs to look after him,” Jane explained, biting her lower lip in nervousness much like Tammy did now and then.

“So this is all Dad's doing,” Daphne said under her breath. She pondered for a few minutes, trying to calm her thoughts. “Well, I don't care whether she likes me or not. What matters is that I have nothing with Benjamin. I'm not on her way. I don't believe he liked me in the past. If he did, he was nothing more than confused.”

“What are you going to do?” Marie suddenly asked. “Are you really going to stay here?”

“I don't see why I should leave,” Daphne said plainly, “not after all the effort Mr. and Mrs. Frank went through to get this room looking like this. Besides, I came to Middleton to work on my book, not to be involved in such trivialities.”

Jane and Marie exchanged worried looks and spent an hour trying to persuade Daphne to go back to the dorms. Daphne listened, impatient, but although that was her wish, she could not acquiesce. Staying at the inn had turned into a matter of proving her indifference to Ben and placing herself above Tammy's unfounded hatred.

“Don't worry,” Daphne said for the hundredth time. “I'll be invisible here. I'll be way too busy to get involved in problems with Tammy.”

“Your presence here is more significant than you think,” Marie told her, anguished, and put around Daphne's neck a golden necklace with a pendant that had a photo of a saint.

“Saint François de Sales, patron of writers and journalists,” she said.

“I'm afraid I'm not a very religious person, Marie,” Daphne hesitantly told her.

“You don't have to be religious for Heaven to protect you,” Marie said. “I must go now and open The Sphinx, otherwise my customers will stop showing up. Don't forget to come visit me. I want to know everything that goes here,” she told her; and, addressing Jane, she added, “you should come see me, too. And keep an eye on Daphne for me, please.”

She hugged Daphne and Jane, and left murmuring to herself words in French.

Jane stayed in Daphne's room a little longer observing her unpack and helping occasionally, though mostly listening to Daphne tell her that all she cared about at the moment was finishing her book. Daphne wanted to be left alone to think over everything she had heard that afternoon, but first she needed to make sure that Jane didn't have the wrong impression of her. She wanted, also, to seem cold and indifferent about Tammy and Ben.

Whether Jane had believed any of her words about writing being her only interest and focus at that time in her life, Daphne couldn't tell. Jane observed her silently with languid eyes and sometimes nodded to show that she was receptive.

When Jane was finally gone, Daphne spent the rest of the afternoon alone in her room in a strange state of torpor.

She couldn't help thinking about Ben. Daphne still couldn't believe that he had told Jane what he supposedly felt for her. What had driven him to develop a crush on her, after all, and be bold enough to spread the news to the rest of the world? They barely knew each other. Their acquaintance was old, but it was far from being called friendship. Everything he had learned about her was a result of the two weeks of meals they had had together. Unless Ben Wallace was a young man with very unstable feelings, she wouldn't believe he really had started having feelings for her. Perhaps, after all, he wasn't exactly the person she had thought he was. Maybe all this was a prank, a childish prank he was pulling on Jane.

Whether he seriously had had a crush on her or simply was joking, Daphne was decided to ignore this story. She had heard the strangest things that afternoon, even stranger than Esther Brown's words.

Everything about Ben Wallace and the world related to him felt utterly detrimental to her writing. All that drama, the lies, the fake smiles and friendship. She desperately wanted to stay away from all that.

She gave her head a little shake to clear her thoughts. She needed to be strong, and forget her problems.

Daphne finished unpacking, and after placing the last shirt in her wardrobe, she was surprised that it was already dark. She walked to her window and observed the lamppost shining a pool of light on the street. Interestingly, at that same time a young man on a bicycle stopped under the lamppost, his blond curls shining under the light, and looked straight at Daphne. She glanced at him, surprised that he was looking at her.

He raised a hand, but instead of waving at her, he wrote in the air. Daphne felt goosebumps.

Beware shone bright in golden, smoke letters.

Chapter 9
Abstract chapter design

Daphne walked toward her desk and picked up the fountain pen her father had sent to her. She tried to write her book, but no words occurred to her. For so many days, Daphne had sat in The Sphinx and contemplated her notebook with that nauseating writer's block making her stomach sink. In those days, despite how difficult writing felt, she thought there still was hope for her. Now, trying to be productive on her first morning in the inn, she was on the verge of desperation.

“How can I concentrate on writing with all this going on?” She murmured after she heard laughter coming from downstairs.

The night before, she had heard the other guests' excitement during dinner, which she gladly skipped under the pretext to get all her unpacking done, even though she was more than finished. After ten minutes stuck by her door, unable to step in the corridor to go join them downstairs, she was then certain she wasn't ready for meeting anyone, at least for the moment.

This morning, the inn had gathered again for breakfast.

She could heard their laughter, the sound of plates being placed at the table, and their footsteps made the floor boards creak. The whole house, in fact, creaked like it was about to fall apart, and Daphne was almost certain that now and then she caught her walls swaying.

She was hungry, and dizzy from hunger, and a little moody too. She sighed audibly, for only solitary people could sigh that way without worrying that others would be around to inquire what the problem was.

Another explosion of laughter coming from the dining room distracted her. She couldn't help thinking that Ben and Caleb could be there laughing with them. Since she had heard from Jane that they lived in the inn, she was in constant fear of walking out her bedroom and running into them. She still didn't know how to react in case she met them again after everything that had happened.

“I need to be more focused and disciplined,” she muttered, trying to shake her worries away, and was about to finally write the first word of the day, when a loud knock on her door startled her.

“Come in,” Daphne said, uncertain, from her chair.

The door opened, and a boy poked his head in the room. Daphne recognized him right away, and he seemed surprised to see her as well.

“Oh, you are the girl who found Andre, aren't you?” He asked and walked in the room.

“Yes, I am,” Daphne said and stood up to greet him. “And you are the boy who stole the bus driver's keys.”

Her words made him shy, but he tried to smile.

She then noticed that he had fixed his tooth. The last memory she had of him was of his mouth bleeding incessantly.

“Your tooth,” she said without thinking.

“Yeah, it's better now,” he said and touched his tooth. “I went to a dentist with my mother the day after all that happened. She was helping me move to McAdams.”

“So you go to McAdams, too?”

“Uh huh. I'm a freshman.”

“Me too.”

He gave her a sheepish smile.

“I heard Mrs. Frank telling Ben that there was a new student here, so I came to say hello. Ben was on the bus with us. I really wouldn't have imagined it would be you!”

“My name is Daphne Chase.”

“Oh, yes. Right, I forgot to introduce myself!” He said and slapped his own forehead as punishment for his forgetfulness. “I'm Jesse Morier.”

They shook hands, and Jesse's grip turned out to be too tight. Daphne couldn't help letting out a little yelp at that sudden pain, and the boy immediately blushed. He then apologized a thousand times and slapped his forehead once again, muttering to himself that his mom was right in saying he is a brute.

“No, no, it's all right,” Daphne said, surprised, trying to calm him. She offered him a seat, and he dropped on her futon looking mortified.

Daphne couldn't understand why that had affected him so much, and tried to distract his thoughts with trivial questions about the bus ride that had brought them to Middleton, about his academic interests and about life at the Franks' Inn.

He proved to be very open and easy to talk with. Jesse was tall and had the body of a strong grown man, his hair was dark and very short, which made him look as if he had tons of tiny spikes on his head, and his jaw was broad and gave his face a square shape, but his mannerisms were very childish and made him look like a big boy.

Jesse told Daphne that he liked all sports, particularly football. “I have a scholarship to play football for McAdams,” he said proudly. He played as a fullback and as Daphne showed little knowledge of American football positions, he went on to excitedly explain them to her, but she couldn't hold in her memory anything of what he told her.

“Do you play anything?” He suddenly asked her.

“No, I am really bad at sports in general,” she confessed, and waited for him to get up and leave, as she had seen student athletes do during high school, losing interest in her as she spoke about how uncoordinated she was.

As expected, Jesse looked appalled. As his reaction was no surprise to her, Daphne went back to her desk to write. She looked straight at her notebook, as the idea of watching him leaving her room offended by her lack of respect for sports didn't feel like it would be pleasant. Such diplomatic incidents were way too humiliating for both parties.

She waited, pretending to be writing, to hear the door opening and then closing. She waited, and waited, and waited, but the door never opened. Daphne turned to Jesse looking confused, and he seemed even more confused as he observed her.

“Are you busy?” He asked, but before she could say anything he surprised her by slapping his own forehead once again. “Oh, yes, you're the writer, aren't you? We shouldn't bother you while you're writing! Tammy warned me about that. I am really sorry!”

The boy started walking toward the door, but it was then Daphne's turn to stand up briskly.

“No!” She shouted, startling Jesse a little. “I'm sorry. I mean, you shouldn't follow this crazy rule my father came up with. And I'm not busy. I – please, don't slap your forehead.”

“Mrs. Frank asked me to check if you'd like to come downstairs for breakfast. There are eggs, pancakes, bacon, muffins, and so many other good things. She's the best cook you'll ever find. My team mates said that cafeteria food at McAdams is nasty. I'm glad I live here.”

Jesse had such a frank way of speaking, so childlike and enthusiastic about everything in his life, that Daphne almost let herself be immediately guided by him. She was ready to say yes to his invitation, when she thought of Ben and Caleb.

“Um, who else is having breakfast now?” She asked him, trying her best to sound casual.

The boy scratched his head as he thought, then counted on his fingers, “Mrs. Frank and Jane still are at the table. Caleb was there a while ago, but Mr. Frank went with him to the office, I'm not sure why, just as I was leaving to come up here.”

“So, only Mrs. Frank and Jane are having breakfast now, then?” Daphne repeated just to assure herself she'd be out of trouble, and Jesse again went on scratching his head, his hair making a rough little noise in contact with his fingernails.

Daphne waited anxiously as he thought.

“Ben and Tammy were there, but Andre wanted some toy and they all came up here to look for it. I think they had already finished eating when Andre asked for Nino. I guess Nino is his Teddy bear. I don't think they'll go back to the dining room.”

Relieved that at least for now she'd avoid an unpleasant encounter with the people who made her uncomfortable the most, Daphne promptly opened the door. “Let's go to the muffins!” She celebrated.

In the hallway, Daphne smelled the delicious aroma of Mrs. Frank's food. The smell of fresh coffee, toast, sausages, fried eggs and warm cinnamon cookies invaded her nostrils and made her realize how hungry she was, and how she longed for homemade food.

Daphne went down the corridor closely followed by Jesse, who wouldn't stop telling her about his football practice. Even though she wanted to give him attention and listen to him, Daphne's mind had already wandered far away from the Franks' Inn. Mentally, she found herself at home with her parents and the twins.

As much as Abelard's eccentric whims and Glenda's subservient nature annoyed her, Daphne knew she would never cease loving them and hoping that a miracle would happen – something truly extraordinary, something that made her completely change her opinion about life in Lavinia – so she could return home and live with them again.

They had barely reached the stairs, when the noise of a door opening and subsequent laughter brought Daphne back from her daydreaming and made her turn to see who had just showed up behind them in the corridor. Distracted, Jesse almost bumped into her.

Seeing Ben made her tremble. This time, though, her heart didn't skip a beat. Instead, for an unexpected reason, it was as if it had completely stopped.

Holding her breath not to get their attention, Daphne saw when Ben left Tammy's bedroom holding Andre in his arms. The boy, holding a stuffed animal, laughed with him. Ben was chatting with him in the most fatherly manner, although Daphne's confused senses didn't let her understand what he said. Tammy was right behind them, smiling, and together the three of them looked like the most beautiful picture of a happy family.

Being in their presence did her more harm than she thought it would.

Tammy, with eagle eyes, was the first to notice they were being observed, and eyed Daphne with a threatened, though not fragile, look about her. Ben, who saw that Tammy had frozen turning the key to lock the door, looked up from her to where she was looking at. It's not an exaggeration to say that he was startled to see Daphne.

Jesse, who at least until then was blessed with peace of mind, didn't notice anything abnormal was going on, and greeted Ben and Tammy in his natural friendliness.

“We're going to eat,” he said. “Do you want to join us?”

“We already had breakfast,” Tammy said, dryly.

“Ah, but there are so many good things that I think it's sinful not to eat some more,” Jesse said and laughed.

Daphne had to smile. Greater sacrilege, actually, was to not respond positively to Jesse's words.

But, under those circumstances, her smile was tense. Her feelings were so transparent, she noticed, that they aroused concern in Ben and anger in Tammy.

Why he still cared about her even after how rudely she had treated him, Daphne didn't know. His worrying for her left her uneasy.

A terrible thought made her feel inadequate. She was then afraid she was the 'other' in that story, which made her heart beats speed up sending adrenaline through her body. Beware. Danger.

Daphne broke away from Ben's gaze and turned to Jesse.

“I just now remembered I have an appointment. I'm late, sorry,” she told him, and went running down the steps.

Jesse went after her trying to convince her that she needed to eat something, but she ignored him.

When they noticed she had entered the living room, Mrs. Frank and Jane tried to speak with her, but Daphne stopped for none of them. “I'm sorry,” she said, “I really need to go,” and ran out the door, leaving them behind with astonished looks.

Desperate, Daphne marched up to the young man standing by the lamppost. When he saw her running toward him, he stiffened his back.

“Take me away from here,” she begged him.

He smiled, and promptly let her on his red bicycle.

The boy biked fast down Middleton's cobblestone streets, with Daphne clung to his waist. As the wind blew against her face, she untied her hair and let it freely fly behind her. It was a cold morning of harsh winds, but that day the wind took pity on her and was kind enough to wipe her tears.

They soon entered one of the paths that led to the woods.

Engulfed by the shadows and aromas of the trees, Daphne couldn't stop thinking about how her life had suddenly become sad. Even in the dry leaves that tumbled from branches to celebrate her arrival, Daphne saw no beauty. There was only a romantic melancholia that oppressed her heart and made her want to cry all tears she had hidden that morning.

When she realized the boy had stopped, she raised her head and was then surprised they had reached the margin of the lake she already knew so well. She felt as if they had traveled in the speed of light to get there.

Daphne walked by the lake feeling defeated. She knelt by the water, but averted her eyes to avoid seeing her reflection. She had always disliked mirrors. There was no more disturbing, surreal experience than to see a copy of herself eye her back.

She heard music, and to her surprise a woman appeared singing in the middle of the lake. Her voice was the softest and most beautiful Daphne had heard, as if a million angels had descended from Heaven to sing goodness to humanity.

Startled, Daphne stood up. The woman's face was of a type of beauty equally stunning, an unforgettable sort.

The young man, touching Daphne's shoulder in support, joined her in watching the woman singing.

“In my world,” he whispered to her, “you'll soon realize that almost nothing is what appears to be.”

Daphne trembled, uncomfortable, for he still had Caleb's voice.

She continued, though, watching the woman, and was surprised when a man emerged, his blond hair shining in sunlight, next to her.

Daphne immediately felt awkward, but the young man gently held her by the shoulders and asked her to face them again.

“That's enough, I don't want to stay here,” she said, upset, feeling all the uneasiness of her first time in Middleton returning to her in full strength.

“You need to be more patient,” he asked her.

When the woman was done singing, she hugged the man swimming next to her. Daphne stared at her shoes to spare herself from watching their romance, but the young man touched her chin gently making her raise her head.

The couple in the lake waved at them. Shyly, Daphne waved back, and they submerged. In their graceful swimming, Daphne saw that instead of legs, both of them had fish tails.

She gasped.

“Mermaids,” she said, awestruck, under her breath. In her whole life, Daphne had never seen anything like them.

“A mermaid and a merman,” the young man corrected her and smiled.

“I didn't know they existed,” she said in amazement.

“They have always existed. It's just that you couldn't see them before.”

“I guess everything is different now,” she said more to herself than to him.

“You are ready, Daphne. Your mind is open. Do you see how much potential there's in you when I'm around? I'd start making a list to keep track of what goes when you're angry or when melancholy. If we agree on a deal, the world – the entire world, Daphne, will be yours. You'll see more than storm clouds or mermaids.”

“If I already can see such things,” she cut in, walking away from him, “why would I want to make a deal with you? I already am powerful.”

“Oh, yes, you are powerful. But you know you can't finish your book without my help.”

She turned to him, angry.

“I asked you to take me away from my problems, and you bring me here to torture me?”

“No, no, it's always been clear that you already torture yourself enough. You writers are tortured souls,” he told her, and clasped her hands in eagerness, pulling her closer to him. “Kiss me, Daphne, just a kiss, just a sign of your love and devotion, and I'll help you finally accomplish your masterpiece.”

Daphne pulled her hands free.

“Why do you insist on talking like Caleb since the day you got yourself a mouth?” She asked, annoyed.

The young man shrugged.

“I'm intrigued myself, but I have my suspicions. You tell me the reason, though,” he said with a grin that annoyed Daphne.

“There's absolutely no reason for you to parrot his voice. And why do you look like this?”

“Again, I don't know. I can't control what I'm going to look like when I start following an artist. It's unpredictable. Sometimes, in a good way. Other times. . . It's up to you. All I am depends on you. My looks, and my personality. My guess is that the appearance you gave me has nothing to do with someone you've seen in real life. I am your hopes and dreams, an idealized figure of someone you haven't met. I'm the result of pure reverie, which makes you even more special to me.”

Daphne shook her head, annoyed, and again turned her back to him. His insistence made her uncomfortable.

“You're either wrong or lying,” she said, and sat on a rock, facing the lake. “If I had any power over your personality, you'd be more kind to me. You'd protect me. Don't you see how lonely I am in this world?”

Unable to hold back her tears, Daphne hid her face in her hands and sobbed. “What am I doing here?” She asked herself in a muffled voice.

“It's better to be alone. You're welcome, though, to come to my world, if this one doesn't suit you,” the young man said in a soft manner, touching Daphne's left shoulder. “Don't cry anymore, dearest. I tried to tell you it would be a bad idea to move in to that place. Now, forget them. Come with me.”

Daphne turned to him and almost fell back.

“Where did that come from?” She asked, pointing a trembling finger to the bright red hot air balloon behind him.

“From there to here,” he replied, and smiled.


She walked to the balloon with her mouth still open in surprise, observing its grandeur with the shyness and caution of someone who saw a hot air balloon up close for the first time.

The young man, to her surprise, suddenly ran, ably jumping in the balloon's basket. Daphne took a step back, startled, fearing that his abrupt movement could have infuriated that majestic thing.

“Do you want to go for a ride?” He offered, and outstretched a hand to her.

“Why not?” Daphne said without thinking too much about her decision. She had never been the type of person inclined to impulsiveness, but that day had already been dotted with so many surprises, that she didn't see in a hot air balloon ride a threat to her already challenged social anxiety.

Helped by the young man, she jumped in the basket. She had never seen a hot air balloon, and looked up at the envelope with a bewitched expression.

“It's beautiful, isn't it?” He said, observing her enthusiasm with curiosity.

“Yes, it is!” Daphne said, unaware that he was looking at her. “But do you really know how to handle that?” She asked, looking at the burner.

“Oh, no, I don't,” he said calmly, and his calmness startled her.

Daphne looked at him, and frowned at his silly smile.

“Then how do you expect us to go for a ride if neither I nor you can't ride this thing?”

“Even if we knew how, I would pass our skills just for the sake of relaxing. It's a lot better to be the passenger, isn't it?” He said, and leaned back in the basket.

“What do you mean by that?”

“You need to trust me, my dear Daphne,” he said, and a bright red cane appeared in his hand. “What I meant is that these things, these creatures that fly in the sky, know how to go out and about on their own. At least in my world they do. We just need to. . . wake it up,” he said, and gave a little tap at the burner with his cane.

Like a dragon, the burner ignited and the balloon slowly started going up.

Daphne held on to the basket, watching they were gradually distancing from the ground. Creativity, who looked like he had traveled in such way many times, was far more interested in observing Daphne.

When they were finally high above the trees, and the lake was just a puddle in the woods, and they could see the whole town of Middleton, the balloon stopped.

The girl looked around, feeling the gentle breeze blowing against her face. Even though it was a cold day, the burner almost worked as a heater.

“I'm surprised we don't get blown away by the wind,” Daphne said, worried.

“Ah, these things stay still when they want to.”

Daphne laughed.

“You can't be serious when you say that a hot air balloon has free will.”

“I can't speak for all of them, of course. But this one sure does,” he said with a smile.

“Oh,” Daphne said and continued observing the horizon. “Look,” she said, excitedly pointing at a spot in the distance, “I think I can see The Sphinx.”

“Marie would be surprised to see you up here.”

“Could she see me up here?” Daphne asked, startled at the thought of her friend observing the bright red hot air balloon in the sky.


“Am I invisible when these things happen?”

“What things?”

“Well,” Daphne hesitated, “stuff like. . . being up here in a balloon that came out of nowhere.”

“Ah. No.”

“Then people could see me here!”

“They can't, for you aren't up here. Not according to you world's laws of physics.”

“This all sounds very complicated. If I'm not up here, where am I, then? Still down there in the woods?”

“That depends on whose perspective we're talking about, and. . . which one matters the most for you. According to their perspective, you're by the lake, sitting on a rock looking as melancholy as a mermaid who lost her mirror. According to yours, and mine, you're ballooning.”

Daphne thought for a while, looking at a flock of colorful birds that approached in the horizon, and smiled.

“I guess I prefer my perspective, then.”

“I do too,” he said and smiled.

They were silent for a few seconds as they observed the birds get closer.

Daphne thought it was extraordinary being up there, away from trouble and everything else that lowered her spirits, but the thought of having to go back to real life kept stealing away that moment's magic.

“How are you feeling?” He asked her.

“Half scared and half happy.”

“Why do you refuse me?”

“Because I want to do things on my own.”

He shook his head.

“Do you have any idea of how helpful I could be to you?”

Daphne looked at him, concerned that he would start his advances again that she was more vulnerable.

“I don't think I do you justice,” she said, hesitantly, “but there's one thing I know for sure about you, and this one thing frightens me.”

He looked at her with curiosity.

“May I know what is this thing that's been keeping us apart?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yes. Later, though.”

He was even more confused.

“Why don't you tell me now?”

“Because I'm more interested in watching those birds,” Daphne said and pointed at the flock.

“Which birds?”


He laughed, his countenance brightening up.

“Why are you laughing?” Daphne asked, slightly amused.

“Because those aren't birds.”


“Those are fish.”

Daphne looked back at the flock, startled, and was then surprised to notice they were not birds. They were a cluster of neon, colorful flying fish. And a few flying turtles and jellyfish too. And two or three stingrays and sharks accompanying them at a close distance.

“That is extraordinary,” she said, observing them fly around the balloon, parading their colors and gracious 'air' swimming. “It's like being in the ocean!”

“As I said, in my world not everything is what it seems. Sometimes, things are worse than you thought. Other times, like now, way better.”

“Beautiful,” Daphne said, and they continued watching the sea creatures fly away.

When they were nothing but pretty, colorful dots in the horizon, Daphne sighed. “I wish I had more days like this. More beauty. Tranquility. I was having a really bad day, but then you saved it,” she confessed.

“They are distracting you from your gift,” he said, annoyed. “It's because of them you still couldn't finish your book.”

Daphne shook her head.

“No, don't say that. I – I actually think it's all my fault. I've realized I'm afraid of what will come out once I start writing.”

“Of course it isn't your fault. Look at all the things your mind can build with my help when you're at peace. Being around them is what pushes you away from the right track,” he said, and pulled her closer to him by her shoulders. “If you accept my offer, I'll help you. I'll make sure you'll always have moments like now. I'll give you everything that you ask me, Daphne.”

She looked at his lips, only a few inches from hers, and was then tempted to kiss him. His face was so close to hers, that she could feel the rhythm of his breathing.

Their lips were getting closer and closer. She shut her eyes, and thought of all the problems that awaited her at the Franks' Inn. All the problems that she had left behind at home, in Lavinia. Everything would be over, if she kissed him. If they sealed a deal.

“What do you I get from you if we kiss?” She asked, their foreheads touching.

“I'll help you write a book so good that the rest of the world will forget everything about that short story collection your father published in your behalf.” he whispered to her.

Daphne gasped.

“And what will you get?”

“Your love for me will keep me strong and alive. We'll be immortal together: such is the deal between Creativity and the artist.”

“All right,” she whispered back.

“All right?” He repeated, excited, and leaned back a little surprised.

“Yes,” she said.

My first kiss, Daphne thought.

At the age of eighteen, Daphne had never kissed anyone, fact that was both concealed from others and at the same time treasured by her as her best quality. Now, about to kiss the young man who claimed to be Creativity himself, agreeing on a deal with him, she finally understood the many single people who said they were married to their jobs.

“I can't,” Daphne said under her breath, and pushed him away.

“What is the matter?” He asked, nervous. “You've already agreed. There's no going back now.”

His voice, which was a perfect imitation of Caleb's most arrogant intonation, made her second guess her decision even more.

“I still haven't agreed to anything. We'll seal the deal only if we kiss, and so far I haven't kissed you,” she said, annoyed.

He suddenly grew taller and thinner, his hair darkened and his nose got longer. His back arched like a man used to interrogating and having many subordinates, with a fixed quizzical brow that gave him a more intimidating expression.

“Why have you changed again?” Daphne asked, hesitant, instinctively stepping back.

“Because you are changing,” he said, annoyed, and his voice was a harsher version of Caleb's. “Why are you like this? Why do you always refuse me? I'm Creativity. I'm your Master!” He yelled at her.

Although scared, Daphne tried to keep a straight face.

“You see why I can't be with you?” She asked him, calmly.

“Because I don't look like a romantic young man anymore?”

“No, even when you looked less – less villainous, you already frightened me.”

He smirked, and Daphne saw that his previous perfect teeth were now crocked here and there.

“I see. Earlier today you said there's one thing you know about me that scares you. What is it?” He asked, and grabbed her by the sides of her face with one big hand. “What is it that frightens you, Daphne Chase?”

His fingers were too cold, and such abnormal coldness pierced Daphne's skin. She looked in his eyes, and saw that they were as black and opaque as Esther's.

“I know that Melancholy will never be able to tame Creativity. The moment I'm vulnerable, you'll take over my faculties and leave me either empty or oppressed by emotions,” she said between her teeth.

He raised an eyebrow.

“Did you know, Melancholy, that without me you are not strong enough to face all the problems that are coming your way?”

She pulled his hand away from her face. His grip had been so tight, that it left her jaw hurting.

“If I remember correctly, you are just Creativity. You're not a God to know what lies in my future,” she said; and, in an abrupt movement, jumped off the hot air balloon.

The moment Daphne ran into the Franks' Inn, Jane stopped her at the entrance. The girl was very surprised to find Daphne completely soaked from head to toe, and for a moment forgot what she had to say to her that was so urgent, but the noise of a door shutting upstairs left her all nervousness again.

“Hurry up, Daphne!” She said to her, pushing Daphne toward the stairs.

Daphne's heart was beating fast, and adrenaline made her instinctively motion to go, but she stopped in the middle of the staircase.

Jane looked at her, impatient, and pointed at the rooms upstairs.

“I overheard when Tammy said to Ben they needed to talk. They just now went to her room. If you want him back, there's still time to stop a tragedy.”

“A tragedy?” Daphne asked, startled.

“Daphne, don't be so slow. Don't live your life so passively. She's going to ask him to be her boyfriend!” Jane yelled.

Daphne blushed.

“Excuse me?”

“Hurry up,” Jane said, and went up the stairs pushing Daphne, “you're going to lose him.”

Daphne freed herself from Jane with an abrupt move, but accidentally tripped on one of the stairs, injuring her knees as she tried to avoid falling.

“I'm sorry,” Jane said, and tried to help her stand up. “Are you all right?” She asked, when she saw Daphne's consternation.

“Jane, once and for all, don't assume I should be with Benjamin. I don't know precisely what he told you, but I have no interest in him. Besides, I am here just to write my book. I can't waste my time with such childish matters,” she told her, and was aware that she sounded harsher than necessary, but the girl's stubbornness was starting to drive her mad.

Wide-eyed, Jane helped Daphne stand up and then stood beside her with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Fine,” Jane said. “You're older than me. I guess you know what's best for you.”

“That's not what I meant,” Daphne said, surprised that Jane thought she didn't take her words in consideration because she was only fifteen. Truth was, since the day they met, Daphne thought Jane sounded much older than her age.

But Jane didn't want to listen to her, and walked down the stairs visibly offended.

She wanted to go after her to repair the bad impression she felt she had caused, but she already was too physically tired and mentally drained to try making peace with someone whose strength was intact.

The moment Daphne went by Tammy's room, though, she couldn't help stopping and wondering whether Ben had accepted being her boyfriend.

“I can show you what's going on in there,” she heard Caleb's voice say behind her. She was startled to see, though, that Caleb wasn't there. In his place, Creativity greeted her.

“What are you doing here?” She asked him, annoyed, between her teeth.

Light suddenly flashed on her face, and thundering made her jump back in fear. She looked up, and was disappointed to see that a storm cloud had formed above her head.

“Oh, Daphne, look what you've done to yourself. If only you had stayed ballooning with me, we could have spared you from suffering,” he said to her in a tone that showed he genuinely pitied her.

“Why don't you leave me alone?”

“I can't.”

Laughter in Tammy's room made Daphne's heart skip a beat. She glanced at the door, and although she wanted to look confident and strong, it was impossible to hide the fact that their happiness bothered her.

The cloud above her head started raining on her, but this time Daphne didn't bother protecting herself with her hands from getting soaked.

Creativity shook his head, looking at her with a sad expression. His cane, then, turned into a red umbrella, which he held to cover her head.

“Here, don't torture yourself wondering if there's time to barge in that room. Let me show you what's going on.”

He then raised a hand, and with a graceful magician's gesture, a window appeared on the wall, next to the door, and it opened to show Ben and Tammy together in a romantic hug, passionately kissing.

Daphne felt an inexplicable pang of remorse at the sight of their love.

“I want to see nothing else. Please, leave me alone,” she asked Creativity with a faltering voice, and ran away to lock herself in her room. There she flung herself in her bed, with a violent storm above her, and wept until her body ached from sobbing too much.

Still under rain, with her clothes and bed entirely drenched, she made an oath to herself that she would write her book and nothing else would be on her way. Not even her feelings.

Chapter 10
Abstract chapter design

When Daphne's life looked like it would be the most miserable there ever was, the wind surprisingly started favoring her.

During her first weeks at the Franks' Inn, she dreaded meeting Caleb, Ben, or even stumbling upon Tammy, but the three of them were most of the time absent when she was around.

Jane, who only held a grudge against her sister, soon turned into the friendliest person again and forgot the little incident with Daphne. In fact, she was not only friendly, but on the way to becoming a great ally. It was from Jane that Daphne learned how to avoid unfortunate encounters with the people who bothered her. She knew when Tammy went out to paint in the woods, when Ben and Caleb were gone for their classes at McAdams, and the days they often went out together, always the three of them, because they were now inseparable.

Another person, Jesse Morier, was gradually proving to be just as friendly. Contrary to Jane, he didn't clearly know Daphne had an aversion to meeting certain people at the inn, but he sensed her uneasiness at times and did everything to entertain her by chattering sad days away with his funny childhood stories. Jesse got in trouble many times in his hometown for his impulsiveness. Strangely, he had an intact good humor for someone who had been yelled at so many times for so many different reasons. In fact, Daphne learned he lost many friends due to his explosive temper.

Daphne liked talking with him, even though they were so different, because he always ended their conversation with a word of encouragement.

“Be brave, Daphne,” he often said to her. “Never let anyone step on you.”

Even Creativity took a break from insisting on an agreement between them, and was at the moment gone from his spot by the lamppost. Daphne suspected, though, that he wasn't just gone. He probably was, she thought, in the woods – and from there she would stay at a distance.

Things would change only if something out of the ordinary came up to mess up her careful strategy to keep away from trouble.

On a Saturday evening when Tammy, Caleb and Ben where supposed to be gone for their weekly pilgrimage to the bars on College Avenue, Jesse barged in Daphne's room, and before she could protest he grabbed her wrist and dragged her out.

As he pulled her, she could barely keep her balance. They ran down the steps, and as soon as he let go of her wrist, Daphne stumbled on the last step. She would have fallen, if it wasn't for him, who turned in time to grab her by the waist, and placed her again on both feet like she was a mannequin.

It had been such an ungracious movement that both of them couldn't help laughing. They dropped on the couch in a laughing fit, their faces bright red, and their bodies finding support on each other, weakened by laughter. Jesse tried to say something about how she had fallen as soon as he released her hand, and Daphne tried to imitate how she had raised her arms to reach for support, but everything was choked by their amusement.

Jane entered the living room, and was surprised to see Daphne there. She tried saying something to her, shaking her shoulders to make her stop laughing and pay attention to her words, but was soon sucked into their laughing festival, and joined them even though she didn't know the reason for their hysteria.

“Jane, your –,” Ben was saying as he entered the living room, but stopped when he saw Daphne.

She glanced from him to Daphne, worried. “Yes?” She asked him, and stood up to talk with him.

Daphne felt her heart sinking. She stopped laughing, but jokingly asked Jesse if he was all right as she wiped her tears with the back of her hands. The boy nodded and forced himself to stop his laughter. He had even thicker streams of tears on his face, and the way he grabbed his stomach made Daphne think that laughing had hurt him. She patted his shoulder in support.

“Your – your Tammy, I mean, your sister asked me to tell you that dinner is ready.”

Jane turned and announced to Daphne and Jesse that dinner was ready, leaving Ben a little embarrassed behind her.

“I kinda have an appointment now,” Daphne said, ready to escape from having a meal for the first time with Ben at the inn. Jane nodded in support, but as Daphne stood up to leave, Jesse grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to the sofa.

“What? You always say you have these appointments. You need to eat. You'll go out later.”

“But, Jesse,” Daphne said, rummaging through her thoughts for a good excuse, but she noticed Ben's fixed look on her, and felt unable to lie. She had to endure dinner with him.

“It's gonna be fine,” Jane mouthed to her in support.

Daphne and Jesse stood up almost at the same time and followed Jane down the corridor. As she walked by Ben, who had remained still after talking with Jane, Daphne didn't dare look at him. She ignored him, going on with the farce of pretending he didn't exist.

She couldn't remain neutral to the environment, however, as she entered the dining room and saw Caleb Deheeger sitting at the table. It was the first time they met since their fight in front of The Sphinx. When he saw her, he raised his glass to greet her, but Daphne preferred not to acknowledge his presence and stared at her shoes. She knew too well that everything that came from Caleb was irony and mockery.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank were already at the table, sitting at each extreme, holding places that were irrevocably theirs by Divine right. Jane, of fluid quality, then slid to the chair by Caleb, and immediately engaged in a happy conversation with him. Jesse, attracted by the smell of potatoes and baked beans, hurried to a chair with his back to Daphne. Right opposite to them were Andre, looking a little depressed stuck in a high chair, Tammy Molina, and an empty stool. Daphne knew to whom that place belonged, so she sat by the only chair that was left, next to Jesse, facing Caleb.

A few seconds after she joined them at the table, Ben stepped into the dining room and went toward the stool by Tammy, who observed him with watchful eyes. Caleb, as he noticed his friend's presence, looked from Ben to Daphne a few times, covering his mouth with a napkin to hide his smirk. He was a sneering hyena, and Daphne shuddered in anger. Sitting by him, Jane was the only other person who had noticed his behavior, and poked him jokingly to stop it.

Dinner was a nightmare. Although Mrs. Frank's food looked delicious, Daphne thought that evening she had lost her sense of taste. Trying to hide her uneasiness, she had desperately tried to detach her mind from the environment, but consequently anesthetized the rest of her senses. How could she eat when there was such tension in the air?

Tammy, trying to make her son take his soup, placed him on Ben's lap; but she couldn't see that neither the boy nor Ben were pleased with the situation. Ben, in fact, looked lost and unable to reach his plate as the boy kicked and pushed the spoon his mother tried to force into his mouth. From her seat, Jane juggled between answering her grandmother's questions about school, and when Mrs. Frank was distracted, giving a mortified look to Tammy.

Daphne tried to focus on observing colors. She was then distracted by the green and purple of the grapes, the tanned and mustard yellow of the fried potatoes and cheese melting over them, the light brown of the mushroom soup, the pure white of the rice pudding. But, whenever she looked at the tall jar of water in front of her, that colorless liquid betrayed her goal, and she saw Caleb's distorted face through it.

He was an abominable young man, who talked loudly and way too much. He started the most displeasing discussions, and demanded that people answered his questions. What is your opinion on God, on politics, on love and hate? He went on and on with such peculiar inquiries, poking people with what he considered to be witty remarks. He listened with hungry eyes, and then distorted everything by making a few ironic jokes and smiling with those thin lips that always molded into smirks. He spoke about beauty, about his own appearance, and bragged about admirers and former lovers who had adored him in the past. Little he knew, however, that he gained many wrinkles around his eyes when he squinted them to pretend he daydreamed about the time when he was Adonis.

Caleb occasionally looked at Daphne, but he didn't dare say a word to her. At least not while Mrs. Frank was present, for she had taken Daphne as her protégé. Nonetheless, he looked at her. Rudely stared, making no effort to hide that he was silently judging her. Whenever she felt that his eyes were watching her, Daphne carefully averted them.

His glances, however, were not the only ones that kept bothering Daphne that evening. From her seat, as she fed her son, Tammy raised her head a few times to watch Daphne, as if expecting that at any moment something bad would happen.

Daphne felt uncomfortable, and her uneasiness was apparent in her clumsiness. She felt observed, studied. Even the way she held her glass seemed to be scrutinized. She accidentally dropped her fork once or twice, and other times bumped into Jesse's hand as she reached for something on the table. Even Ben, always-too-polite Ben, shook his head during one of those circumstances for no apparent reason, displeased with her.

When dinner was finally over, Daphne thought the nightmare had come to an end and envisioned a few hours of seclusion in her room, away from Ben, Tammy and Caleb, but little she knew that the great finale still was to come. As everyone stood up to help clean the dishes, Mr. and Mrs. Frank, perhaps out of hospitality to celebrate the arrival of a new guest who rarely showed up for meals, told them that they shouldn't worry about cleaning.

“Why don't you go play games in the living room?” Mrs. Frank suggested, and her idea provoked such enthusiasm in Jane Frank, who out of a sudden grabbed Daphne's hand and told her that she should join them.

“I can't be around them,” Daphne whispered to her.

“Don't go. I'm sure you'll find this interesting,” Jane whispered back.

No gladiator ever enjoyed the company of lions, she thought, and pictured herself being unmercifully dragged into the Colosseum.

Daphne and Jane were the first to reach the living room and sat next to each other on the couch. Jane quickly picked up a magazine on gardening that was on the coffee table in front of her and started to browse it distractedly while telling Daphne about the Halloween party that the town would host in a week. She excitedly mentioned that it was a tradition, and quickly added that it was the only tradition they had in Middleton.

“You know this isn't a good idea. Why haven't they gone out to a bar tonight?” Daphne told her before the others showed up.

“I don't know. Ben wasn't feeling too well. But, believe me, I think you'll like this. Please, trust me. Aren't you a writer? This will inspire you for sure.”

Daphne hated being blackmailed by the circumstances, but under the aren't you what you claim you are suspicion, she had no other choice other than stay with them and endure whatever game they had in mind.

Caleb and Jesse soon joined them, sitting on the arm chairs opposite to the girls. Jesse looked satisfied with the food he had just had, and with a drowsy look observed Jane's hypnotic hands perusing the magazine. Caleb, on the other hand, was very alert as he glanced at Daphne with a subtle smile in the corner of his mouth. She prayed that by then he would have understood that she wasn't interested in engaging in conversation with him. And suddenly there the smirk was, the wrinkles around his eyes, and as he leaned forward to address her, she prepared herself to counter-attack and show that Daphne Chase would not be a submissive prey.

Jane's melodious voice suddenly sprung next to Daphne:


“Yes, my love?” Caleb replied, shifting his glance to her.

“Where's my sister?”

“Your sister,” he started and then cleared his throat, “my dear, she went upstairs to put that lovely boy of hers in bed.”

“And do you think she will join us soon?”

“I hope so. But, you see, Mrs. Molina is a highly requested lady. My dear friend Ben went upstairs as well and I wouldn't be surprised if they decided to spend some time together after Andre fall asleep.”

His words disgusted Daphne from the way he enunciated them to the manner he waited to see people's reactions. Caleb Deheeger, always carefully weighing his speech, to Daphne was nothing more than a poorly rehearsed actor.

“I'll never understand that,” Jesse said, suddenly waking up from his trance.

“What?” Caleb asked in an impatient tone.

“How could the board have suggested they should be together?” Jesse asked and made the sign of the cross as he pondered about his own question.

His words left Daphne curious and almost interested in joining their conversation. She knew Caleb noticed she was eager to ask a few questions, as he glanced at her before turning to Jesse.

“It wasn't the board. The board is just an object. It was the spirit who suggested it.”

Jesse made the sign of the cross once again.

Daphne was very confused. So a spirit had said Tammy and Ben had to be together? That was the biggest nonsense she had ever heard, and thought the couple to be foolish for having started their relationship that way. Still, though, she had to admit it was one of the most exciting ways to start a romance in a story, if they were characters in a novel.

She observed Jesse's features, which where the best representation of a superstitious, scared man, and then wandered to Caleb's slight uneasiness, and finally to Jane's motionless expression as she stared at an uninteresting article on growing grass. Daphne wanted a better explanation, but they were suddenly silent, each of them thinking about 'the board,' whatever that meant.

“I don't believe in spirits,” Jesse said after a while, breaking the silence. And, as it seems just out of precaution, found support on the sign of the cross a third time.

Finding the best opportunity to start preaching his knowledge, then, Caleb Deheeger cleared his throat, stiffened his back, and started talking in a standoffish manner.

“I wouldn't have thought, of course, that everyone would be open to the complexities of the after-life and be able to understand it. You see, spiritual telegraph, in fact attracted the intellectual circles of 19th-century France. Did you know that, Jesse, my friend? Only the intelligent and wise can –.”

Jane, whose face's paleness had shifted into the purest red, rose a hand to stop Caleb's harangue.

“Enough,” she mouthed to him.

The seriousness in her eyes signaled to him that at that moment she shouldn't be contradicted. Even Jesse, sitting by Caleb, looked uneasy as if he also was the target of her silent reprimand.

“Okay,” Caleb said, surrendering, and there he silently stayed seated like a sack of potatoes. He looked a little offended, naturally.

Daphne was impressed that Jane had such influence and control over him. What is it about this guy that makes him so. . . tamed when Jane is upset?

Jane started talking about the Halloween party again, and held on to describing everything they did every year during the celebration. The girl's descriptions were so detailed that Daphne felt that if she caught a cold on the day of the party and found herself unable to attend it, she wouldn't have missed anything. Jane was very meticulous in everything she said, and such thorough descriptions mentally transported Daphne to a universe where people wore interesting, truly scary costumes on the streets of Middleton in a treasure hunt to find a mysterious prize hidden somewhere in town.

No one knew for sure who was the person or the group responsible for offering the prize and hiding it every year to be found on October 31st. This tradition had started a few decades ago without any publicity. The news that a prize had been hidden in Middleton for the inhabitants to find simply spread from person to person. It was, however, strangely difficult to trace back where the rumors had started. People contradicted themselves when telling how they had heard about it, or simply refused to acknowledge the existence of such rumor at all. Every year the same tradition repeated, people went to the streets, and someone always found the prize.

“The city hall always denied any participation in this,” Jane explained, “and I don't think they are lying. The prize, like people say, might be something very good, grandiose. The town mayor would never give out anything worth more than a gift card to Brothers' Pizza.”

“And how do you know the prize is that good?” Caleb asked, and looked somewhat uninterested.

“Because all those years, on Halloween, the people who found the prize always left Middleton the next day. Only an extraordinarily good prize would be able to change people's lives so quickly to the point that they could leave everything behind to restart their lives some other place.”

Caleb raised an eyebrow.

“Nobody went after them to ask what they found?” Jesse asked, a little nervous.

“Of course some of us went looking for them. But the winners always disappear without a trace, like the family of this one guy who goes to my school. He was literally abandoned and left behind to be raised by his grandparents. Grandma knows his grandmother well, and I overheard them talking about how depressed the boy is. His parents, if you want to know my opinion, are selfish bastards, that's what they are. To be honest I don't think they ever truly cared for him. They never picked him up at school on time when we were younger, and I don't think I ever saw them attending one of his games. The guy plays baseball. He is really good at it, or at least used to be. He doesn't play it anymore,” Jane said and then sighed.

“That's terrible,” Daphne let escape, finally breaking her muteness.

Caleb, Jane and Jesse looked at her with surprise. Daphne had remained silent for such a long time that hearing her giving an opinion seemed like a surreal experience.

“What I mean is what prize in this world could make someone abandon his or her own child? I am sorry to disagree with you on that, Jane, but I really don't think this prize is a good one. Perhaps it is grandiose like you said, but there is nothing good about it.”

Jane blinked, and looked at Daphne with a look that could only mean curiosity. It somewhat reminded Daphne of Tammy's look. Jane, then, unexpectedly smiled, and her smile was large and frank. She approved Daphne's words.

The conversation about the Halloween party, however, did not continue, for Tammy and Ben entered the living room, each pulling chairs to join them around the coffee table. They sat side by side and looked at them trying to adjust to the topic of the conversation.

“Are we ready, then?” Caleb suddenly asked.

Tammy was a little startled.

“Oh, yes, yes. Grandma and grandpa just now went to bed,” she said.

“And your boy?”

“He's in bed too,” she replied, promptly.

“But I see him right here!” Caleb said jokingly and pointed at Ben.

He laughed profusely, joined by Tammy's and Ben's sheepish smiles. Jesse seemed a bit amused, but Jane simply looked at Daphne and rolled her eyes in annoyance.

“So let's start,” Jane said abruptly.

Still recovering from his fit of laughter, Caleb reached under his armchair and pulled a wooden box up, which he placed on his lap. He, then, solemnly opened it and took what undoubtedly was an Ouija board.

Daphne had never used an Ouija board, but she could recognize it well from what she knew about it. It was probable that there wasn't a person on Earth who could not recognize and understand the purpose of those letters, the numbers, the cards that had “yes” and “no” on them, and the small piece of wood that was a planchette used to spell out messages from the occult.

That's the board they were talking about, Daphne thought. How could Ben be so stupid? Doesn't he know there's only fraud in such ways of communicating with ghosts?

Caleb carefully placed the board before him on the coffee table and the planchette over it. He looked at everybody and, after excitedly rubbing his hands, asked them to keep their mind open. The spirits, according to him, would not be able to communicate in case someone present doubted they existed.

“You still remember what to do, don't you?” He asked and everyone immediately outstretched a hand to the planchette, very gently keeping a finger or two on it.

That is, all but Daphne, who instinctively crossed her arms over her chest.

“What are you waiting for?” Caleb asked her, frowning, and Daphne blushed. That was the first time they talked since their fight.

“Nothing. I am not going to participate.”

“Why not?” He asked in a mocking tone, which made Daphne feel heat waves going from her neck to her head.

“Because if I do I'll be the narrow mind who's going to ruin your spiritual telegraph,” she replied in the same tone he had used.

Everyone looked surprised. Caleb raised an eyebrow, getting ready to snap back at her, but hostilities instead came from Tammy.

“If you're afraid, why don't you just go back to your room and stay there?”

Jane stiffened her back.

“Of course she is not afraid. I think others here, not Daphne, should fear what the unseen has to say. If I were you, sister, I'd be careful.”

Tammy looked at Jane with sparkling eyes. She was furious.

“You are just a kid,” she said and Daphne felt that Jane trembled slightly, “what are you doing here? You should be in bed.”

“I am not a child!” Jane shouted at her.

“Jane, Tammy, please, don't fight,” Ben asked, alarmed, and hugged Tammy to calm her.

Daphne felt as if she had a lump in her throat. She wanted to get up and leave, but Jane grabbed her wrist in support.

“All right,” Jane said, “I'm not going to fight. Let's start this thing. Even though Daphne doesn't want to participate or simply doesn't believe in ghosts, she's going to stay here at least to watch. Right, Daphne?”

She couldn't say no to Jane's imploring eyes and to the girl's slightly trembling hand around her wrist. Although Jane Frank, for some reason that Daphne still wasn't aware of, often desperately tried to look older, at that moment she looked like no more than a helpless child. Daphne, then, nodded a little unwillingly.

Caleb, as usual the king of attention, started to clap. But at the right moment he took his hands away from the board, the planchette started moving. Amid the confusion, they had carelessly left their hands over it.

Everyone looked startled and Jesse even let a swear word slip. Caleb joined them quickly and asked in a ridiculous deep tone of voice if there was a ghost trying to communicate with them.

In response, the planchette quickly slid and pointed at the card that said 'yes.' Caleb looked at everyone with an excited look.

“Who's your message for?”

It immediately started moving to spell out the response to his question.

Daphne felt terrible sitting with them. She couldn't help thinking about Abelard and how he liked such spooky games, and whenever she saw his sickly, pale features in her head, she blamed him for everything that was bad in her life at the moment.

“Daphne,” Jane said excitedly, “it looks like there's a message for you!”

“What?” Daphne asked, returning from her daydream.

“What do you have to say to Daphne?” Jane asked the Ouija board.

Caleb looked annoyed and reminded Jane that he was the person responsible for asking questions to the spirits, and went on talking about how it was necessary to take the Ouija board and its rules seriously.

“Shut up,” Ben unexpectedly cut in, leaving Caleb with an insulted expression. “Pay attention to the message.”

Et tu, Brute?” Caleb asked Ben, but the latter ignored him.

Ben was more interested in the planchette, which continued moving quickly for a few more seconds and then stopped abruptly.

Everyone looked at Daphne with tense looks. Well, everyone besides Tammy, who suddenly thought the chandelier above her head was way more interesting, and also Caleb, who could not follow the spelling out of the planchette.

“What? What did the spirit say?” Caleb asked anxiously.

“You are in danger,” Jane said and Daphne felt her blood getting cold in her veins.

“The spirit said that Daphne is in danger?” He repeated, and Jane nodded with an worried look.

“Don't worry,” Jesse told Daphne in a weak voice. “Nothing is going to happen to you. And, if it does, I'm here to protect you.”

Daphne smiled at him in gratitude. They barely knew each other, but she felt Jesse truly was someone to count on.

If she had not heard a similar admonition from Esther Brown, she would not have given any importance to what the Ouija board said. She didn't believe in the occult. What bothered her, though, was to always encounter such words since she had arrived in Middleton. It was like a curse, like an ominous ghost that wouldn't stop haunting her.

“Why are you guys so alarmed?” Caleb asked. “What could be threatening to her? Middleton is a small town, nobody here would be interested in mugging or kidnapping her. Daphne doesn't even look like the type of person who would die young. Look closely. She's destined to live for many decades and die old. One day she'll be a wrinkled old lady who's going to die alone. Or, let's be fair, perhaps surrounded by a bunch of loyal cats.”

Daphne blushed. She wanted to leave immediately, but her legs felt too heave for her to stand up.

“Hey, that's enough,” Ben calmly said, but his request fed Caleb's hunger for attention.

Tammy, sitting by Ben, poked him in the ribs and mouthed that he shouldn't interfere.

“What do you mean by enough. No, there isn't enough when it comes to talking about our illustrious author. Tell me, Daphne, are you any close to finishing your book? This rule about being silent while you're writing is killing me. Whenever I'm upstairs, I'm also fighting the temptation to go knock on your door and ask to read an excerpt of your work. For now, tell me – tell us, because we're very curious, do you consider yourself the future Jane Austen?”

Daphne's lips were strangely sealed. She couldn't fight for herself. All she could do was struggle inside with her heart pounding at the wave of destructive thoughts invading her mind.

“Shut up, Caleb,” Jane demanded. “Why are you doing this?”

“Yes, shut up, or else,” Jesse said with pursed lips and raised a tight fist to Caleb.

Caleb, however, wasn't intimidated. That was his moment of glory. He was an actor. An actor gaining strength from his audience's reaction.

“What are you going to do? Punch me? I know that you athletes need to vent all this pent-up energy somehow, but you hang in there just for a little longer. I'm not done talking with Daphne,” he said, calmly, and turned to her with one of his famous cynical smiles. “Look, Daphne Chase, it turns out that now you have friends. Fantastic. But look how they treat me. Please, all I was trying to do was to reassure them there was no need to worry about your safety, because the only harm coming your way is the likely possibility of getting even more –,” he paused, and Daphne dreaded more than anything he was going to say 'insane', “even uglier than you already are.”

“Enough!” Daphne yelled at him, and stood up to slap him, but Jane was able to stop her in time.

“It's not worth it,” she told Daphne in an afflicted tone, grabbing Daphne's right arm with all her strength.

Everyone gasped. Who would have thought that Daphne was capable of reacting in such aggressive way? Even Caleb sank into his chair looking as surprised and scared as the first time she had attacked him.

“You're an awful person, did you know that?” Daphne said. “Why do you treat me with such disrespect? I've never done anything to you. Even if I had, what makes you think that you're going to denigrate me by making sarcastic comments about my physical appearance? My face, my whole body, all this is ephemeral. It doesn't matter the way you look, everyone here will die one day, and will rot and your beauty will not be spared. If you truly want to pick a fight with me, why don't you try pointing out the flaws in my ideas, in my ideology and moral code? Please, don't waste my time by attacking me from such insignificant perspective.”

Caleb was livid. After Daphne unloaded on him everything she felt at the moment, he couldn't find words to defend himself or to continue offending her, so he simply stayed staring at her with a feeble expression.

Jesse was in shock, but not exactly in a bad way, and both Ben and Tammy had their mouths slightly open in surprise. Daphne didn't bother looking at Jane, for she was sure that the girl's expression wouldn't be too different compared to the others'.

She pulled her arm free from Jane's grip, and darted away. She ran up the steps, feeling like her emotions were like a volcano ready to erupt and spill magma on everything that bothered her, starting by Caleb Deheeger. She hated him like she had never hated anything or anyone in her entire life.

How could a creature be so cruel like he is? He has no compassion for anything or anyone he consideres inferior to him. His conceit, wherever it came from, turned him into an absolutely arrogant individual and, worse, irreparably made him blind to his own flaws. He is the worst nemesis ever found in a story.

After closing the door behind her, Daphne sat by her desk and opened her notebook to write. The words came out naturally, as if her hand knew too well how her soul was feeling:

I hate Caleb Deheeger.

When she noticed the boy's name had contaminated that page, Daphne was taken by an inexplicable terror and threw the notebook away from her.

Grief pierced her heart and choked her. She stood up and threw herself on her bed.

Convulsively crying, Daphne buried her face in the pillow and wished to die. She held her breath and covered her mouth and nose, but death wouldn't come. She felt desperately helpless and orphaned, even there in the almost perfect copy of her father's office. She had failed. She had failed in all aspects of her life.

A knock on her door startled her. If it is Caleb knocking, I'm going to kill him! Before she could say that she didn't want to see anyone, the door suddenly opened and Jesse Morier walked in.

“Don't cry,” he said, distressed.

Surprised, Daphne quickly sat up. She wanted to tell him to leave, but Jesse sat on her bedside without asking permission.

“Do you write the same way you talk?” He asked her, serious.

“What?” Daphne was surprised. Jesse looked like a completely different person.

“Is your writing as true and honest as your words to that moron downstairs?”

Daphne didn't know what to say, partly because she was uncomfortably aware of how swollen her face had gotten after too much crying, and partly because she was all uncertainty about her own writing.

Noticing that she was unable to say a word, Jesse then picked up her notebook from the floor and opened it. He muttered her words:

If you want to live an exceptional life, you need to start reconciling with your true self. The human mind is too stubborn to ignore old dreams. It will pester you whenever you are vulnerable, until the day you finally acquiesce or the day you go mad.

“This is all you have written here. Why?” He asked, confused. “Oh, wait. There's also I hate Caleb Deheeger.

Daphne's heart skipped a beat.

“What are you doing?” She yelled, and threw herself at him to recover her notebook.

Even already in possession of it, Daphne continued hitting Jesse with her fists. She struggled until she lost her strength and dropped in his arms.

“I hate Caleb,” she said sobbingly. “I hate him. I hate Tammy. I hate Ben.”

Jesse held her firmly and Daphne hid her face in his chest. She cried profusely until she had no more tears to shed.

“I want my father,” she said with a sinking heart. “And my mother, my brothers, and my grandma as well.”

“You need to be strong,” Jesse said and then, picking her up in his arms, he put her in bed. “Don't cry anymore,” he said, covering her with a blanket in a brotherly manner. “You are a great writer. You have a lot to say, you just need to write it down. For now, just sleep. Tomorrow, when you're feeling better, everything will be different. I'm on your side and I'll protect you from him, even if that's the last thing I do.”

“I'm your ally too, Daphne,” she heard someone say from the door, and noticed that Jane had been standing there all this time.

Jesse switched the lights off and left her by herself in the dark. Alone, Daphne cried for a little longer as she grieved her own state. Perhaps her father was right. And also Esther and Creativity for warning her about the dangers of life in Middleton. And, now, the Ouija board as well. The whole Universe was conspiring to get her to leave that town.

She cried, and cried, and before she could notice, her body yielded to exhaustion and she fell asleep holding her notebook close to her chest. Writing was her burden, and at the same time her only hope.

Chapter 11
Abstract chapter design

The next morning Daphne woke up to the sound of insistent knocks on her door. She wanted to talk with nobody, at least not without emotionally preparing herself not to burst into tears at the slightest sign of tension. Daphne, then, pretended to still be asleep.

As expected, the door opened and Daphne heard Jane's voice calling her name. Even though it was Jane, Daphne continued motionless. Although Jane was one of the few who treated her kindly, Daphne didn't want to speak with her. She knew that the girl was of the opinion that no one should take Caleb's words in consideration, and that morning Daphne didn't feel inclined to be obsequious to her friend. No, Caleb Deheeger did not deserve forgiveness. He would always be a tyrant, no matter what people said to try to change her opinion of him.

“Are you asleep?” Jane insisted, but Daphne did not respond.

After an audible sigh, Jane left.

Daphne stayed under her blanket for a few minutes. When the hallway was silent, she got out of bed and sat at her desk to write. But that morning she wasn't feeling particularly inspired.

It was extraordinary to think of how life had changed in such short amount of time. A few months ago, disregarding the headaches caused by her father's eccentricities, she felt that she lived in tranquility. Since she moved to Middleton, she thought that her life had turned upside down. Strangely, the more she tried to go unnoticed by everyone around her, the more they saw her.

The most upsetting thing at the moment, however, was to imagine that after what had happened the night before no one would leave her alone. Caleb would certainly continue to insult her, Jane and even Jesse would end up developing a sticky kind of friendship for fear that she was a vulnerable prey at the inn, Tammy had more to feed the dislike she felt for Daphne, and Ben, of course, was marked to become a great disappointment as he always followed his girlfriend.

Staying locked in her bedroom felt like the best option to avoid getting into more trouble.

Around 11 AM, Jane tried to reach Daphne again, but ended up running into Tammy in the hallway. From her desk, Daphne overheard the exchange of insults and muffled accusations. The main theme was loyalty, or rather lack of loyalty. The aggressive whispers quickly ended in tears and each sister left swearing not to talk with each other ever again.

Not too long later, Daphne heard shy footsteps right outsider her door. She waited to hear Jane's voice, but instead she overheard Jesse's irritated tone asking Caleb what he was doing outside Daphne's room. When she heard Caleb's name, her heart skipped a beat and a rush of adrenaline went through her body. She stood up, though instead of marching up to Caleb to tell him to leave her alone, she froze. Feeling very tense, she overheard the conversation between them.

“I was going to the bathroom,” Caleb said in his usual snobbish manner.

“Liar. You have no right to treat people the way you do. You don't have the right to insult Daphne or to insult me. You think I'm nobody just because I'm an athlete and I don't go around talking about books, poetry, and this stuff you read, but did you know I actually have a scholarship because I play football for McAdams and I am very good at it?”

Daphne held her breath. It was admirable that Jesse was defending her and himself, but since he wasn't very articulate, she was certain Caleb would mock him.

“Oh, really? Good for you. Now don't waste my time, Mr. Football. Why don't you go exercise outside?”

Caleb's words, although not directed at her, hurt Daphne's feelings. He is a terrible, insensitive person whose ego is too inflated to let him see anything before his eyes.

Both boys suddenly grew very quiet. She didn't know what was going on outside, and felt tempted to open the door. When she reached for the doorknob, she suddenly heard the much awaited noise of a good punch right in the face, and then a loud bang of something violently hitting her door and a thud as someone fell.

Startled, Daphne instinctively jumped back and fell on her futon. She knew that the quarrel had turned into a serious fight.

She heard the two boys scuffling right outsider her room. Uncoordinated, Daphne stood up and opened the door, and Caleb – who had been using her door as support for his back – suddenly fell back on her feet, with Jesse kicking him on the stomach and hitting him with disoriented punches.

Caleb, who was very vulnerable on the floor, tried his best to protect his head as Jesse hit his ears and jaw with the strength of a mad bull. It was like a rodeo gone wrong, and Caleb could do nothing other than wait for help as the animal stepped on him in revenge. Daphne noticed a streak of blood running from Caleb's right eyebrow, and although she felt that he deserved the injuries, she also knew that there was nobody coming to his rescue.

Daphne grabbed Jesse's arm trying to stop him, but her intervention was nothing compared to the power of the vicious cycle of destruction the boy had stepped into. His eyes were dazed, and Daphne soon understood that the Jesse she had met wasn't there anymore, and in his place was some mechanical form that would stop only once Caleb was dead.

“Jesse, stop!” Daphne shouted at him, but the boy wouldn't listen.

She tried hitting his arm, but he continued punching Caleb, who already looked lifeless on the floor. In a desperate attempt, Daphne let go of Jesse and tried to shield Caleb with her own body, like she had seen in so many stories. She felt a few sharp strikes on her back as she covered Caleb in a hug and shouted for help.

Quick footsteps came running up the stairs, but before they could reach them, a dull noise indicated that Jesse had fallen by them, awaken from the trance that kept him in a violent fit. Daphne, however, didn't move. She was in shock and her mind had gone blank. All she knew was the she had to protect Caleb.

She heard Jane's alarmed voice asking if she was all right, and then firm hands pulled her up by the waist and walked her into a room she had never been to. Before the door closed, she had a quick view of the hallway. She saw Mrs. Frank with her hands on her cheeks as she looked at Caleb with the most livid expression. Tammy was busy kneeling by Caleb and trying to talk with him, and Mr. Frank was pulling Jesse away from there. The boy walked feebly, very confused.

It was, Daphne soon realized, Ben's room. The boy was standing by her, holding her by her shoulders. Before he could say anything to comfort her, Jane joined them. She had Andre in her arms.

“Are you all right?” She asked Daphne once again.

The girl's eyes were open very wide and she seemed to be holding Andre more to calm herself than to tranquilize him, who was very agitated and anxious to know what was happening.

“I'm – I'm – I don't know,” Daphne said. She felt strangely weak.

Ben wouldn't let go of her. He must have felt that she was trembling and thus held her firmly.

“Good God, what happened?” Jane continued. “I don't understand. The guy was – he was going to kill Caleb! Wasn't he?”

“Jane, relax,” Ben said. “I don't think Daphne is in condition to talk with you now.”

Jane, however, was too nervous to stop pacing with Andre in her arms. The boy was already crying, and struggled to free himself from his aunt.

“Jesse was out of control!” She said in a high-pitched voice, and then walked to Daphne. “Why were they fighting? You were there. You know what caused all this!”

Daphne instinctively tried to take a step back, but Ben was still holding her. He thought, misinterpreting her move, that she was passing out.

“Jane, please, leave!” He said, forgetting his manners, and carried Daphne in his arms to his bed.

“What?” She asked, and sounded surprised and offended.

“She's nervous. You'll ask her whatever you want another time.”

“But –.”

“The boy,” he said, firmly. “The boy is scared. He shouldn't be here.”

His last appeal had a stronger effect, as Jane seemed to disentangle from her worries and curiosity. She looked at Andre, whose face was bright red from crying, and hugged him to soothe his pain.

“I'm sorry,” she said a little embarrassed, and quickly left.

As Jane crossed the corridor, they could hear Andre's screams echoing.

“Are you Okay?” Ben asked, immediately turning to Daphne and sitting by her.

Daphne, however, didn't know what to say. She was hurting, both physically and emotionally, but although she desperately longed for someone to rescue her from that nightmare, she also deeply wished to be left alone. Ben, poor Ben, who always tried to be useful, was in reality the last person in the world she wanted to see at that moment.

“Daphne?” He insisted, and looked unsure whether the girl had heard his words.

“Leave me alone,” she finally said, and without noticing, she had already buried her face in his pillow and started to cry convulsively.

The emotional state in which she was, of course, did not convince Ben that she truly wanted to be left on her own. He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to comfort her by saying that everything would be all right. Benjamin, however, was the type of person who often took care of everyone around him, and perhaps as he repeated soothing words to so many before her, Daphne couldn't help thinking that his attempt at calming her sounded mechanical.

And then, surprisingly, he pulled the pillow away from her and sat her up.

“Please, I'm sorry, I don't know what really happened, but don't cry. I hate to see you crying,” he begged.

“How could you be his friend?” She asked, sobbingly.

“What?” He asked, surprised.

“How could you be Caleb's friend? He's a tyrant!”

Ben's face contorted in a tortured expression, but he simply pulled Daphne close to him and hugged her.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm really sorry it's been so difficult.”

Still keeping her in his arms, he began to apologize and to ask her to be his friend again. Daphne tried to free himself from his hug. He was suffocating her, and she gradually went from vulnerability to anger.

“I don't want to talk about this now,” she told him and tried to push him away.

Ben, however, was stronger and wouldn't let go of her.

“I've always admired you. I admire your family, your talent. All I wanted was to be your friend. Please, why can't we be friends?”

Daphne managed to break free from Ben and jumped out of his bed, but he pulled her back. He grabbed her arms and made her sit next to him. He looked devastated.

“What are you doing? Let go of me,” she yelled, but he didn't seem to be listening. All that mattered to him at that time was to convince her that they should be friends.

“You want to know why I'm friends with Caleb? He is not a bad guy. I know, I know, you'll disagree, but you don't know him well. To be honest, I don't know why he treats you like that, but I can break up this friendship if that's what you want to be with me again.”

“I don't care, now let me go!”

“Daphne, Daphne, don't be so stubborn. How could you still be so opposite to our friendship? I always defend you, I had many problems with Tammy, in fact, because of you, nonetheless I defend you.”

“I already told you that I don't care. Could you please let go of me? You're hurting me,” Daphne told him, but the boy simply frowned and looked frustrated.

“Why are you like this? I've been a good friend to you since we came to this town! What do you want me to do, huh? What should I do to prove that I'm worth being your friend?”

“Ben, you're really weird right now. We'll talk another time, now let me go,” Daphne said and tried getting up, but he leaned over her and pinned her down on his bed by her shoulders.

He looked at her and his eyes were feverish. Daphne was scared. The inn was busy at the moment dealing with a serious problem that would deaf to everything else. She was, Daphne quickly realized, at the mercy of a young man's obsession.

“Let me go, I'm going to start yelling for help,” she insisted, uselessly pushing him away.

“No, please, don't. Why? Listen, Daphne, you need to forgive me,” he said, his face only a few inches away from hers. He looked nothing like the normal Ben.

“You are insane,” Daphne said and this time she tried to kick him, but Ben managed to stop her by leaning over her even more.

“Yes, I am insane. How could I not be? If you were treated like I am treated by you, you would also be insane. I can't understand your reasons for breaking up our friendship. You treat me as if I were a bad person. Even worse! You ignore me, even when I am sitting just a few inches away from you.”

Ben frowned and gave his head a little shake to clear his thoughts. For a second, he looked like he was going to finally let go of her. But, then, his eyes were fiery again. He leaned over even more, ready to kiss her. Frightened, Daphne instinctively turned her face away.

The door flung open and Tammy marched in the room. The look on her face was the most terrifying Daphne had ever seen.

Ben stood up quickly and anxiously looked from Daphne to Tammy without knowing what to say. Since he didn't know how to explain the situation, he simply put his hand in his pockets and waited for Tammy's reaction. Daphne, who just like Ben didn't know what to do, sat up and waited.

“Get out!” Tammy yelled at Daphne, startling her.

Daphne immediately stood up. She wanted to run away from Ben's room, but the boy kept her from leaving.

Tammy, whose eyes shone angrily, looked at Ben like she had witnessed a terrible sacrilege.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?” She asked and then looked at Daphne again. “Get out of my house! I don't want to see you here ever again!”

“Come on, let's talk in your room, Okay?” Ben said and tried to persuade her to leave with him, but Tammy, who wouldn't listen to him, forgot the few inches of politeness she kept within herself and threatened to kill Daphne.

“What have I done to you?” Daphne yelled back, and stubborn tears started streaming down her face. “Why do you hate me so much? I've done nothing.”

Daphne's insulted feelings, however, left Tammy even more angry. Everything about Daphne, particularly her tears, maddened her.

“You cynical! Who do you think you're fooling, girl? You pretend you want nothing with him, but I know the truth. I know you came to this inn to seduce Ben. You told your father to get you a room here because you're interested in Ben! Why do you play with his feelings, then? Do you think it's funny to play with him like that?”

“What?” Ben said, and looked at Daphne, surprised.

Daphne had had enough stupidity and scornful words. She hated the Franks' Inn, and she hated everyone there. She hated that her father had put her in that situation. She also hated the fact that she had an unfinished novel waiting for her in a room that awfully resembled Abelard's office. There was no more space for calmness, particularly because calmness did not exist in her vocabulary anymore. Daphne, who could feel waves of anger and revolt going through her body, without thinking twice, marched up to Tammy and slapped her in the face with all strength.

She left the room and went back to her bedroom. Trembling from head to toe, she changed and packed a backpack with a few clothes. She could hear Tammy's and Ben's heated words, but tried to ignore them. As she walked down the corridor, Jane and Mrs. Frank were standing puzzled in front of the door to Ben's room. Mrs. Frank opened her mouth when she saw Daphne, but nothing came out. Her frailty broke Daphne's heart, but there was no time to apologize.

“If she leaves, I will!” Daphne heard Ben yell at Tammy, who consequently showered him with the most awful insults.

When Daphne left the inn, she didn't know what to do. Her first impulse when she slapped Tammy was to leave everything behind and go far away from Middleton. She wanted to hide in a hole, like a careful rabbit, until people gradually forgot that once existed a Daphne Chase, and once she also forgot she had met people like them. But, after hitting someone, no one is fully able to get rid of memories, get rid of those stubborn thoughts that don't stop to flood the mind and poison the body.

Her life, she felt, was ruined forever. After slapping Tammy Molina there was no way she could ever go back to the inn. She had no room, and her belongings would be burned down in reprisal. Her textbooks would be destroyed along with her clothes and Abelard's books.

She could very clearly picture the most miserable future ahead of her. Dressed in ragged clothes, she would roam the town by day in search of abandoned sheets of paper, once she had entirely filled her notebook, to finish writing her book. By night, struggling to sleep, she would find shelter under the gazebo, holding her legs close to her chest as she tried to keep her body warm. Her dreams would be feverish, inhabited by an angry mob of faceless people who hunted her with pitchforks and yelled insults. They called her the most terrible names, the most unfair offenses, and there was nothing she could do to stop them, nothing she could do to defend herself.

Daphne walked aimlessly trying to decide what to do. Her first thought was to call her parents begging them to go pick her up. But, after desperately rummaging through her pockets, she remembered she had left her cell phone in Lavinia.

Starting to feel hopeless, Daphne started running. She ran and ran down Middleton's streets, like a mad girl fighting for her life, even though she knew nobody would come after her to either help or injure her. She was again alone and lonely, with nowhere to go, and this time with a handful of enemies wanting her head.

And, also, with a helpless unfinished novel in her backpack.

The realization of how her life was an utter failure hit her with full force. She had cut relations with her family to write a book she couldn't finish, because of her the inn was upside down, and now she was homeless.

In the state of mental confusion she was, she barely realized she had entered the woods. But, when she noticed she was surrounded by trees, she didn't think twice and knew precisely who she was supposed to go to: Creativity was the only one who could help her.

She had not seen him in many weeks, but instinctively knew she would find him by the lake, where they had met. However, no matter how much she ran making her way through paths she already knew, she couldn't find the clearing where the lake was.

After an hour searching, Daphne stopped and leaned on a tree trunk to catch her breath.

“Where's the lake?” She whispered to herself, tired, a hand resting on her chest to feel how fast her heart was beating.

She knew she hadn't lost herself. Even though she hadn't the best sense of direction, she had memorized a few ways to get to the lake. And, now that the trees were naked and the woods felt less dense, she was almost certain she would have spotted it easily from far away.

It was almost as if the lake had never existed. Or the trees themselves had rearranged to hide it from her.

“Creativity!” Daphne shouted. “Where are you?” She tried again, but he didn't show up. Without a sign from him, Daphne was starting to feel desperate again. “What am I going to do without you?” She murmured, wiping off her tears with the back of her hand.

For a few seconds, the world grew silent. Even the birds stopped chirping, and the wind stopped bringing to her the distant noises of Middleton's daily life. When Daphne noticed something was wrong, it was too late. Quite literally, her world turned upside down when something grabbed her by her ankles and picked her up.

Daphne screamed, and turned her head a few times, trying to understand what had happened to her.

Her first thought was that she had stepped on a hunter's trap, but then panicked when she noticed that what held her weren't ropes, but thick tree roots that came all the way from the ground and kept her hanging upside down high in the air.

“What the hell is going on?” Daphne yelled, wide-eyed, and struggled like bait on a hook.

The more she tried to release herself, the roots tightened around her legs. Daphne screamed in pain when the tree bark, rough against her skin, started cutting her. When she felt inside her pants that a thin stream of blood started to run down her leg toward her right knee, she yelled for help.

“Where's the strength of that who seeks Creativity?” A deep, cavernous voice echoed.

Caught off guard, Daphne trembled in fear and looked around to find who addressed her. But, with her head pounding with blood, all Daphne managed to get was dizziness.

“Who's there?” She yelled.

“Don't you recognize my voice?” She heard, and felt that the woods vibrated. That voice sounded as if it came from beneath the earth, from very deep in the woods' heart.

“No,” Daphne said. “Whoever you are, set me free.”

Answering her demand, the tree roots promptly released her. Daphne fell. When her back painfully hit the ground, her eyesight darkened. Feeling faint, Daphne lay for a few more seconds, but being so exposed to danger got her building up her strength to stand up and leave.

“Where are you going?” The voice asked, and sounded like thundering behind her.

“Leave me alone,” she snapped, walking away with a limp.

The trees around her suddenly made a loud, creaking noise, and began to gently sway. Daphne gasped. All those trees inexplicably had turned into sentient beings, for they moved their branches and changed position at the slightest indication that she wanted to run away.

“Only the strong can survive a deal with Creativity. I won't let you pass,” the voice told her, and the tree branches and roots rearranged to form a tall, large wall in front of her. That was the best indication that the lake was that way.

Daphne's mouth fell open, and she instinctively took a step back.

“Why are you doing this to me?” She yelled, annoyed. “I need to talk with Creativity!”


“He's the only one who can help me. Please, I beg you, let me get to the lake,” she said.

“Do you love him?”

“I do,” Daphne said without hesitation. “Please, let me go to him.”

“You'll have to prove your love. I want to see if you're capable of defeating my wall.”

Without thinking twice, Daphne ran toward the wall, and grabbing and supporting herself on the tree branches and roots, she started to climb it as fast as she could. But, no matter how fast she was, the wall kept rearranging itself to remain ahead of her progress, always higher. It was practically impossible to reach the top.

In one of those moments when the branches disentangled to rebuild the wall, Daphne tried to slip between a gap that had appeared not too high above her head. No longer fearing for her safety, she was in despair to find Creativity.

Noticing she was escaping, the branches narrowed around her body to stop her, mercilessly clutching her ribs.

Daphne cried out in pain, trapped, and started punching and kicking the wall. She soon realized, though, that the more she struggled, the more the branches wrapped around her waist. Starting to have trouble breathing, Daphne stopped fighting and let herself be stuck in the wall, her arms and legs hanging still. She knew she had been defeated.

“Are you going to give up?” The voice asked her.

The words choked in her throat.

She thought of Abelard, and was certain of how ashamed he would feel to see her up there. She knew it, because she also didn't feel very proud of herself.

“Are you going to give up?” The voice repeated, this time stronger, and Daphne flinched.

Stubborn tears kept streaming down her cheeks. She didn't want to give up fighting, but she was exhausted and there was nothing else to do. She was only one person against a force capable of blowing conscience into the entire woods to be against her.

Daphne raised her head to say she had given up, but sunlight reflecting on water not too far from where she was caught her attention.

Her chest was again filled with hope when she saw it. The lake was right there, not too far from the wall, quietly resting in the heart of Middleton.

“I'm not!” Daphne yelled with all her strength, and her voice sounded as powerful and thundering as that of the entity testing her. Taken by a colossal force that emerged in waves of heat enveloping her body, she hit the wall with both hands and it shook, weakened.

The magic that kept the trees' consciousness then broke, and the wall fell apart. Daphne fell, twisting her left ankle when she hit the ground, and there she stood observing the tree branches and roots going back to their normal length, and entire trees making sulks on the ground as they returned to their regular places.

Without wasting any more time, Daphne ran as fast and the best way she could, even though she was injured, toward the clearing.

Her heart was beating fast in realization that she had lived her first true adventure, when she crossed the circle of trees around the lake. Her first thought when she reached the lake, however, was that everything she had gone through had been in vain. When Daphne didn't see Creativity standing across the lake, her heart sank. She stood breathless, and craned her neck a few times to see if he was peeking from behind a tree; but he wasn't there.

She felt she was tearing up again, but repeated to herself that from that day on she needed to be stronger and would no longer cry.

“Are you looking for me?” She heard Caleb's voice yell from far away, and her heart skipped a beat. “I'm up here,” he said.

When Daphne looked up, she gasped, for Creativity waved at her holding his cane high above his head in the hot air balloon.

“I need to talk to you,” she told him, getting closer to the lake. “I want a deal with you.”

Creativity looked surprised.

“You look like you went through a lot since the last time we talked. I've warned you bad things would come your way, remember?”

“Yes, you were right.”

He crossed his arms, offended.

“And you said I couldn't see your future.”

“Forgive me. I believe you now.”

“So you say you want a deal. Not too long ago, if I remember correctly, you said the same thing and left me with a broken promise. What guarantees that you won't give it up again?”

Daphne's heart was beating fast as she rummaged through her thoughts for excuses that would make Creativity feel more secure about her, but she was so astonished with everything she had lived that weekend, she knew her justification would sound incoherent. Afraid that he was too hurt by her to trust her again, Daphne knelt by the lake and begged for him to help her again.

“I'm desperate,” she said in a weak voice. “I don't know what else to do. Everything went wrong in my life since I moved to Middleton, and I've tried and tried to finish my book, but I can't do it without you. It's in my backpack right now. I'd show it to you, but I'm too ashamed of it. I need your help. Please, I want the book you promised. The book that will erase Daphne's Book from everyone's minds.”

Creativity looked at her, studying her with attention, rubbing his chin as he thought.

“Do you love me?” He asked her out of a sudden.

“I do,” she replied, promptly.

“Then prove it. We'll have a deal once you prove your love and devotion to me,” he said and grinned in happiness at the sound of his ultimatum.

Daphne quickly stood up, her hope renewed.

“What do you want me to do?” She asked him.

Creativity pondered for a while, and smiled satisfied with the idea he had thought of.

“I want you to come up here. If you manage to get up here, you'll have proven your love. But, if you give up or simply fail, you'll have to forget that one day you met me, because I'll go away looking for someone more deserving of a deal with me.”

Daphne's mouth fell open. The hot air balloon was too high above the lake, and unless she developed wings and learned how to fly, there was no other way she could reach it.

She was going to tell him how unfair that test was, when his elbow accidentally bumped into something in the basket, and a long rope ladder attached to it disentangled toward the lake, slightly touching its surface.

“Oh, no, look what I've done,” he said, dramatically holding his head between his hands in despair.

Daphne laughed, happy he had made things easier.

“Thank you,” she told him, getting rid of her backpack, and threw herself in the lake.

Shivering, Daphne swam as fast as she could toward the ladder. Her whole body ached from trying to climb up the wall minutes ago, but despite her pain and how cold the water felt, she had decided not to give up.

She kept emerging and submerging, doing her best to keep her breathing steady. Every time she raised her head above the water, she could see Creativity intently observing her. His severe expression had turned into a half macabre, half childlike curiosity, like that of a child observing tired ants trying to swim out of a drop of water.

Part of Daphne still feared him, as Creativity's personality changed from minute to minute, but deep inside she knew she had to trust him, his passions, and his intentions, whatever they truly were. After all, if one thing was clear to her, it was the fact that alone she wouldn't be able to finish her book. And, without a book, she couldn't leave Middleton and move on with her life.

When Daphne was already near the ladder, she reached for it with a trembling hand. Her fingers were about to close around the rope, when something pulled her down so suddenly she swallowed a bit of water.

Without thinking of nothing else other than her survival, Daphne struggled to release herself from what kept holding and pulling her down. After a powerful kick, she was able to set herself free and desperately swam up.

Coughing, Daphne reemerged and tried to reach for the ladder, but her hands found nothing. The hot air balloon was still up there, and so was Creativity, who excitedly rooted for her as if she were fighting in an arena.

“Where's the ladder?” She asked him, and once again she was pulled down.

Daphne tried moving her legs, but this time a stronger force tied them together, dragging her down to the bottom of the lake.

Only her arms were free, and she in vain waved them to swim back up. It was like a rock was tied around her ankles. She looked down to see what was pulling her, and was then greeted by the mermaid and merman she had seen weeks ago, both of them concentrated in kidnapping her to their kingdom, their own little world within the lake, which turned out to be way deeper and far more interesting than Daphne had imagined.

As she approached the water creatures' home, her mind went blank. She had never seen such beautiful crystal edifices, all of them shining a bluish gleam under water. They looked like they belonged in a vivid, marvelous dream, and their beauty bewitched her to stay and never leave.

Why would she want to go back to her world, when everything about the mermaids and mermen was the peace of mind and tranquility she longed for? They sang lullabies, and their endearing eyes looked at her, welcoming her to their houses, to their lives, beaming with happiness as if she was an awaited daughter of that water kingdom.

When she reached a road made of the same crystal that molded the buildings, they released her, but Daphne didn't feel like a prisoner and much rather wished to stay with them.

Dazed, she waited for the other mermaids and mermen to approach her, and they smiled and started humming a song that Daphne had never heard, but sounded strangely familiar.

She didn't like songs, because of her father's fondness of them and his passion whenever listening to his favorite melodies. But the water creatures' song was different. It was an emotional tune, for sure, because of their visible engagement to singing it the best way they could, but Daphne felt like neither crying nor laughing. Their song, like no other song she had heard in her life, was just comforting. Comforting like a hug after a long, stressful day, and didn't require significant explosions of feelings.

Watching them, how they sang arm in arm around her, welcoming her to that world, made her feel more and more certain that she wanted to stay with them.

When the song was over, the mermaid who had brought her down the lake hugged her with fondness. Filled with joy, Daphne opened her mouth to say how happy she was to meet them, but she ended up swallowing water. Desperate, she closed her mouth immediately to preserve the little bit of air left in her lungs.

Despite her struggle, others came up to hug her, drawing from her more air in every squeeze. Daphne's chest felt tight and oppressive as her apnea started to fail her. With a longing expression, she looked up at the lake's surface, and saw the distorted reflection of the red hot air balloon hovering over it. Much like someone awakening from a good dream, she then remembered everything about her life and herself. And, of course, she remembered her book awaited her in her world.

She couldn't stay, and the mermaids and mermen knew it too, but judging by their saddened expressions they didn't want her to go.

Daphne waived them goodbye, and started swimming up, but they grabbed her ankles and pulled her down. Surprised, she gasped, and with it went the last reserve of air she had. Already drowning, she gestured to show she needed to leave, but they wouldn't understand and held on to her to keep her with them.

The hot air balloon continued up there, but she knew Creativity would never jump down to save her. She could picture him waiting for her, deciding whether she was deserving of his help. The red glow it created close to the surface was beautiful, but awfully reminded her of blood. She felt dizzy, and everything around her, including the scarlet light infiltrating in the lake, started to look very faint. And the mermaids and mermen were nothing more than ghosts humming around her, clinging to her with their icy cold hands.

She was dying. She knew it, and felt disappointed in herself for dying before accomplishing her only goal in life. Her incomplete novel was in her backpack by the lake. By the time someone found her body, they would find her work as well, and would pity her for never finishing it. And who would believe that had been an accidental drowning? Daphne had always been a great swimmer.

The thought of her family crying because of a wrong cause of death and her unfinished book sent sparks to the side of her that was brave and still hoped for better days. She looked up at the surface, and wished with all her mind's strength to get up there and reach the balloon. She closed her eyes, and when opened them again the next thing she saw was, like a torpedo, she had propelled herself up with a pair of large wings that had grown in a second in her back.

Finally reaching the surface, air invaded her lungs, bringing her back to life. Arms wide open, she went straight to the hot air balloon, and flung herself into Creativity's arms, kissing him full in the mouth.

“My angel,” he said, touching her white, feathery wings, “the world is yours to take.”

Sitting by the lake, Creativity smiled at her. His blond curls and white vest left him looking more ethereal, like a creature that didn't belong in that world. Daphne sat by him, still winged, closely paying attention to his words. She depended on them to survive from now on.

“I hope my tests weren't too painful,” he told her.

“Was it you who awoke the trees, then?”

“Yes. After a long time away from me, your mind was getting rusty again. I needed to get you back on track. Here,” he said, tying around her right wrist a silvery bracelet. He tied around his own wrist a similar jewelry, and both of them were for a second linked by a subtle silver light that sparked, making it briefly visible, and then disappeared. “For as long as we are tied together, you'll never be alone in your art.”

Daphne smiled, watching both bracelets with curiosity.

“You must give me a name,” he told her.

“A name?”

“Yes. Who am I?”

She thought for a while, rubbing her forehead gently.

“At times you sound like you see my future. At times you promise me the entire world, and make me believe my name will be immortal. At times I think you have a good and a bad side, you're both good and evil. You're like a god, and at times your voice seems to echo through me as if I were a priestess in Delphi. What name to give you, other than Apollo?”

Apollo gave her a head bow, and lift his bright, blue eyes to her.

“Then Apollo I am. Beware, though, for you evoke a past filled with tragedy. On those days, on the days of the Delphic Oracle, I had more power than your imagination will ever bear.”

“I'm not afraid,” Daphne said. “I just want everything to be different in my life from now on. I want to finish my book, and finally be happy. And fly away from here as soon as possible.”

“But you already have wings, and learned how to use them the moment they came to you, which is a very rare phenomenon. I only met one person who managed the same doing, but was too greedy for his own good and lost them, along with his life. Why can't you fly away right now and put a stop to your suffering? I'll go with you, and in a new environment you'll write your book with the tranquility you seek. You need to be alone.”

Daphne shook her head, impatient. Apollo was free to roam the world and live the way he wanted, when disentangled from an artist, of course. In her case, though, there were many more things that kept her rooted to the place where she was, even though she wished to go away.

“I can't,” she told him, categorically. “If I leave now, they'll think I'm a coward.”

“Whose opinions of you matter so much?”

“My family's. My father doesn't think I'll succeed here. Remember him? Have you seen him? He's the most stubborn man on Earth. I bet he's just waiting for me to go back home crying that he was right. I need to prove to him, and to myself also, that I can finish my book here, no matter how awful these people are to me.”

“So you'll move back to the inn?”

She sighed, remembering the fight between Jesse and Caleb. She had never seen anything like that, and the pain from Jesse's punches on her back reminded her of how terrible life at the Franks' Inn was.

“I also can't go back. There's someone there who doesn't want me around.”

Apollo raised a malicious eyebrow.

“I can help you go back if you want to. How about we get rid of this person? Without your enemy around, you'll be free to go back.”

Daphne was a little startled by his proposal.

“You want us to get rid of Tammy? What do you mean by that?”

“I mean a world of possibilities. Let's just try one out and see what happens.”

Abruptly reaching her hand, Apollo pulled her so violently that Daphne, eyes closed, raised the other hand to stop herself from hitting the ground in front of him. But, instead of falling, she found herself stumbling in front of the Franks' Inn.

“What shall we do to her?” Apollo asked her.

Daphne looked around, and was surprised to find herself there.

“She treats me terribly,” she said, regaining composure, “and I heard from her sister she hates me, but I'm not sure what I want to do to her. I already slapped her.”

Apollo crossed his arms over his chest, annoyed.

“Do you really think that's enough, my angel?” He asked, his hair sparking under the sun. “That woman made your life miserable,” he said, unexpectedly raising his voice. “She's a monster. Let's throw her in a pit and put a rock on the entrance to lock her there forever!”

Daphne instinctively took a step back at the sight of his sudden anger.

“She has a kid. I can't do that to her. Andre needs her.”

Apollo grunted in impatience.

“Don't be mad at me,” she begged, hugging him to soothe his annoyance. “I hate her. But I don't want anything tragic to happen. Listen to me, Andre needs his mother.”

The young man, who was much taller than her, looked down at her face and tried to smile. “Well, if you say so.”

“Yes, yes, thank you.”

He gently released himself from her hug and glanced at the corner of the street.

“How about kidnappers, then?” He asked, and his eyes were sparking with excitement.

And, again, Daphne was alarmed.


“Yes, yes. A group of bandits that will come down the road, invade the inn and take Tammy and her child away on their horses.”


“Good bandits, of course. Good bandits. . . good bandits on good, white princely horses. They'll kick that door down and drag her out, gently carrying her kid, of course. And go away to the end of the world, where she'll die. . . I mean, where's she'll die to stay once they release her, because she'll realize she actually prefers living there.”

“Living in the end of the world?”

“Yes,” Apollo said, and then smiled sheepishly.

Daphne thought for a while, as Apollo anxiously waited for her decision. She hated Tammy. From the first time they had met, she treated her awfully even though Daphne hadn't done anything to her. Their story had been a case of hate at first sight. Perhaps, with Tammy out of her life, her days in Middleton would be better.

“All right, but you have to promise me Andre will be treated gently,” Daphne acquiesced.

Apollo laughed, satisfied.

“Oh, but it's you who needs to make this promise, since it's you who's going to be in charge of everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it's you who's going to rewrite your story. You're the writer, I'm just your inspiration. Here, try it,” he said, and like a patient teacher, he held her wrist up, and helped her write in the air.

At first, Daphne was unsure what was going to happen, but when the first smoke words started showing up in the air bright and purple, as her forefinger gently traced them, she held her breath in excitement. They were like Apollo's first attempt at communicating with her when they met.

A group of ten ugly bandits – the ugliest and most evil bandits on Earth. . . though with some goodness hidden somewhere deep, very deep inside their hearts – loudly roamed the cobblestone streets of Middleton on their white horses, doing all sorts of evilness that their role in society demanded. Unable to control such wave of mischief, they marched in the Franks' Inn with only one intent: to kidnap the frankest of them all. Dirty-mouthed Tammy Molina was the chosen one. She was mercilessly dragged out of the inn, along with her kid (this one treated with more civility) and taken to the end of the world, where she decided to stay to spare everyone from her harsh opinions.

Daphne looked at her words shining in front of her with pride, but Apollo's pout surprised her.

“What?” She asked him. “Don't you like my story?”

He crossed his arms over his chest once again, unsatisfied.

“Tammy Molina has made you cry. She's stolen your peace, she's ungrateful and treats you like you're a disgusting insect that needs to be squashed,” he said, annoyed, and pointed at the words in front of them, “and even after all that, that's all you can come up with?”

Daphne blushed, and felt a little uncertain whether that had been an offense to her writing or to her weak aggression against Tammy.

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“Make her cry, for sake of justice,” he said, excitedly, shifting into his severest form, the one with bushy eyebrows and a constant stern look. “Think about what she would hate the most in a situation like that.”

Daphne thought that simply by being kidnapped Tammy would be facing the worst that could happen to her; but, nonetheless, she pondered for a while to please her teacher.

And no one raised a finger to defend her, Daphne added, and celebrated from the upstairs windows that Tammy Molina was gone.

“So?” Daphne asked Apollo, and anxiously waited for his reaction.

He looked at her words, very serious, and soon burst into laughter.

“Yes, that's much better,” he said, “and it would for sure piss her off. We can only hope. Let the show begin,” and with a wave of his cane, the bandits she had written about appeared on their horses on the corner of the street, darting toward the inn.

Surprised, Daphne froze on the sidewalk as she watched them get closer. They truly were the ugliest men she had ever seen, toothless, some of them missing an eye, dirty from head to toe, their faces distorted with anger toward everything and everyone. Everything about them contrasted with their pure white, practically princely horses – a treat for Tammy, who was bound to live a sad life from now on, but deserved to see something beautiful before she reached her days of misfortune.

“Watch out!” Apollo yelled and pulled her to the side before they got ran over by the horses.

Daphne was so astonished, that she stumbled as Apollo dragged her to watch everything from a safer place.

“I didn't think they could hurt us,” she said, trying to catch her breath, when they reached the gazebo.

“Oh, they could do worse than that, believe me,” he told her, adjusting his clothes to look gentlemanly again.

From their new spot, she saw when the bandits broke in the Franks' Inn and was able to hear the scuffling that went on in the house.

“Is this really happening?” She asked Apollo.

Everything looked and felt so real, that she couldn't help feeling nervous and scared for Tammy. She knew that if something like that had happened to her, instead, she would have died in terror.

“Don't you believe in your own eyes?” He asked, and Daphne bit her lower lip in apprehension.

Daphne's heart skipped a beat when they finally reappeared at the door, this time dragging their victims out. She saw Tammy kicking and screaming to free herself from two men who pulled her, each grabbing her by an arm, as she yelled for somebody to save Andre. The boy, crying in one of the men's arms, outstretched his arms in a feeble attempt to reach for his mother.

Watching that scene broke Daphne's heart. She pulled Apollo's sleeve, adrenaline racing through her body, and begged him, who wouldn't stop laughing, to do something to stop them.

“Aren't you amused?” He asked her, annoyed that she interrupted his fun. “This is your creation. It's spectacular. Look, look, here comes the best part!”

Mr. and Mrs. Frank, Jane, Ben, Caleb and Jesse appeared at the windows waving goodbye and asking the bandits to take Tammy away. “Take her, we don't want to see her ever again,” they said, leaving Tammy desperately sobbing.

Bravo, bravo,” Apollo said, applauding.

Daphne, however, was disgusted by everything she had seen so far. Angry, she shoved Apollo aside and sprinted toward the bandits.

“Hey, leave her alone!” She yelled at them, but they didn't pay attention to her.

“Daphne, are you insane?” She heard Apollo screaming behind her, and with a firm grip he grabbed her arm and stopped her in the middle of the street. “What are you doing?”

“They're humiliating her,” Daphne said, struggling to pull her arm free.

“So what?” Apollo yelled at her. “That's what you wished for.”

“No, that –,” Daphne said, but interrupted herself when she saw Tammy got knocked out unconscious by one of the men trying to tie her hands. A wave of anger went through Daphne's body, and she could think of nothing else other than putting an end to that.

She hated Tammy more than anything, but one thing was slapping her right in the face and facing the consequences of doing so; another thing completely different was orchestrating such unfair fight between one young lady against ten grown men.

Apollo, who didn't understand her sudden regret, held her firmly to keep her from running toward the bandits.

Daphne saw them place Tammy's unconscious body on a horse, her long red hair falling down the horse's side like a fiery cascade in sunlight, and a man mounted behind her. Another man mounted his horse holding Andre, whose face was scarlet from crying. And they all darted away, shouting excited cries for accomplishing a successful mission.

When they went past Daphne and Apollo on the street, the girl showered them with offenses. Desperate to shut her, Apollo covered her mouth with a hand, but her cries had already drawn attention to them.

“What did she say?” One of the bandits asked, and approached them with a menacing look.

“She said nothing,” Apollo replied, nervously, still keeping her mouth shut.

The bandit eyed him in suspicion, and made a gesture for his friends to come closer. They soon found themselves in the middle of a circle of the meanest thieves and assassins on Earth.

“I believe I heard something,” the bandit insisted.

“I'm afraid it was just your imagination,” Apollo said. “Now, gentlemen, off you go.”

For a few seconds, there was some confusion among them and an exchange of looks that indicated they had never dealt with an eccentric type like Apollo. And then, for they didn't know what to say, they burst into a thundering, hysterical laughter that startled Daphne and Apollo, and Andre too, whose crying regained strength and could be heard in the background of their laughing choir.

Watching the boy's distress triggered in Daphne a good deal of courage she didn't think she possessed. She bit Apollo's thumb, who released her immediately, and in one breath and addressing each of the bandits circling them, she said, “Bad Mannered, Smelly Like a Wet Dog, Heartless, Ugly Twin Number One, Uglier Than Your Twin, Hoarse Duck Voiced, Stupid, Even More Stupid, Pure Stupidity, Son of a – Stupid Woman!”

When her list of insults was over, there was silence. The shocked sort of silence, though imperfect, dotted by Andre's crying and Ugly Twin Number One mocking his brother.

“And that's – that's not what I said before, but I prefer these new insults. They're more – um, more customized.”

“What's gone into you? Have you gone mad?” Apollo hissed at her, holding his thumb against his chest.

Daphne was almost certain she had.

Past their surprise, the bandits drew their guns and pointed them at her. Instinctively, Apollo then pointed his cane at them, renewing their laughter.

“And I'm the one who's gone mad?” Daphne asked him between her teeth. And, addressing the bandits, she demanded them to free Tammy and Andre.

She didn't have a lot to lose, but at least Tammy and Andre had Mr. and Mrs. Frank, who in reality loved them and wished to take care of them.

“You're doing everything wrong,” Apollo murmured to her, and carelessly tried to shut her mouth once again as he looked at the bandits' guns, but she dodged his hand.

“I'm your master. Set them free,” Daphne told them in a high pitch.

They laughed, entertained, their faces turning purple.

“Stop laughing!” Daphne yelled at them, in vain. “I brought you here. I wrote this. Now I demand that you leave Tammy and Andre alone and go away.”

But, as they showed no interest in obeying her, she reached for Tammy's body on her own and tried pulling her off the horse, but in a sudden swing of his arm Heartless grabbed Daphne's ponytail, mercilessly pulling her head back to get a better view of her face.

“You're very bold,” he said, nauseating Daphne with his bad breath and darkened teeth. “May I know the name of that who calls herself my master?”

“Take your hands off her,” Apollo told him, his anger masked by the civility in his tone, and from the corner of her eye she saw that his cane had turned into a red gun, which he pointed at her aggressor.

Daphne was so frightened that she could say nothing, and in suspense waited to see what would come out of the silent exchange of looks between the bandits and Apollo.

“I'll spare you this time, young girl, because you remind me of my deceased daughter,” Heartless told Daphne, “but only you and your friend. Ginger and her kid come with me,” he said, and pushed Daphne into Apollo's arms.

The bandits poked their horses on the ribs, and they sprinted away pointing their guns up and shooting in celebration of a job well done in Middleton.

When Daphne saw that they were taking Tammy and Andre away, she chased them on foot yelling for them to stop, but they were faster and her wings refused to work. They were like a pair of useless, fake wings attached to her back.

“Do something,” she asked Apollo, starting to sob. “Do something. You must stop them!”

He soon reached her and pulled her closer to his body, hugging her to soothe her desperation.

“I can't, my angel. It's over now, don't exhaust your mind,” he murmured to her, shifting into his more ethereal form and showering her head with kisses.

She saw the bandits disappear down the road, and looked up at Apollo's handsome face. She already regretted their deal.

After everything she had lived that day, Daphne didn't want to go back to the inn, despite Apollo's insistence that it was now safer for her to return.

“How can you be so calm?” She asked him, annoyed. “Don't you feel bad for what we've done to Tammy and Andre?”

“Honestly, no. Well, perhaps a little bit of remorse for the boy, but for Tammy. . . nothing. You don't want me to have feelings for her. I can feel your hatred, still. It's surprising to see you acting against your own nature.”

Daphne turned to him, mad at his inconsiderate words, and yelled at him to leave her alone.

“We're still linked, don't forget,” he told her, raising his wrist to show his bracelet. “Call my name if you need me,” he said, and disappeared.

She was again alone, and past the adrenaline rush from her adventures in the woods and fighting the bandits, she was then aware of how sore and drained her body felt, and how hopeless her situation was. She was confused, too. Very confused, in fact. She didn't know what to think of the incident at the inn, neither understood the extent of what she had done to Tammy and Andre nor was able to explain her encounters with Apollo, this creature only her could see. And more urgently, she didn't know how to solve her homeless situation.

Daphne dragged herself down College Avenue. Now and then she recognized a few familiar faces, mostly classmates, but pretended she didn't know them. She didn't want them to think she was in desperate need of help. At some point in her wandering, she contemplated the idea to go sit at a coffee shop to calm herself, but was too nervous to stop walking.

She left College Avenue the same dazed way she had entered it, and walked by the hidden artsy shops she liked. Soon enough, rain began pouring down on her. She was immediately cold. Strangely, though, it made her feel colder to think that she had no place to go. It was as if rain had found a way to penetrate her skin and steal away the little bit of warmth she brought within herself. In Middleton, even nature was merciless.

“Daphne?” She heard a familiar voice calling her.

Her heart skipped a beat, for that was the voice of an angel sent to save her from the miserable state in which she was. Why hadn't she thought of that option earlier? So, as most people do when facing a long, awaited miracle, she sobbed in happiness for the blessing bestowed upon her.

Chapter 12
Abstract chapter design

When Daphne opened her eyes, she found herself in bed at a place she didn't recognize. She quickly sat up, but a hand touched her shoulder to keep her from getting more agitated.

“Thank God, you're awake. Daphne, chérie, what happened? You passed out in my arms,” Marie asked, and gently offered her a pill and a glass of water. “Aspirin. You have a fever,” she added.

Still confused, Daphne took the pill. Only when water touched her lips she realized how dry her throat was.

“What happened?” Marie insisted, observing her with an anxious look. “Your ankle is swollen. You have bruises on your arms, and cuts on your legs. What happened?”

Daphne had a headache and the rest of her body felt sore. She handed the glass of water back to Marie and pushed away the many blankets she had over her.

“I changed your clothes, because yours were soaked. I hope you don't mind,” Marie told her, and Daphne only then noticed she was wearing one of Marie's dresses.

“How long have I been here?” Daphne asked, and looked around to familiarize herself with the environment, which could only be Marie's place.

“Not too long,” Marie said. “This is where I live. We're right above The Sphinx. My apartment is above the bookstore, remember?”

“Yes, yes,” Daphne said in a weak voice. She felt, though, as if she had been there for a longer period.

“Are you all right?”

Daphne wasn't. In fact, she felt very drowsy and her body was too warm. Boiling, actually. But there wasn't time for discussing her symptoms.

“Can I stay here?” Daphne asked her out of a sudden. Marie couldn't help letting her surprise show, but nodded vehemently.

“Of course. And I wouldn't want you walking outside in the rain right now.”

“No, you don't understand. Can I live with you?”

“Live with me? Live here?”

“I promise I'll be good. I'll help you with everything. I swear you'll barely notice I'm here. I can't cook, but I can clean, and I can take care of the bookstore. I have two younger brothers and I always took care of them. Mom says I've always helped her with chores since I was a little kid,” Daphne said, eagerly, and grabbed Marie's hands to continue begging until she agreed.

“You can stay with me for as long as you want. I am just a little surprised, since you moved to the Franks' Inn recently,” Marie said, and suddenly grew quiet. Daphne saw her face go from surprise to realization. There, drowned in confused thoughts, her friend Marie found out that Daphne's wish to move in with her was more serious than she had expected. “What did Tammy do to you?” She asked her, and her eyes sparked angrily.

“What did I do to her, you mean,” Daphne corrected her.

“I don't understand.”

Daphne didn't wish to think about what had happened at the Franks' Inn, but if she truly wanted to move away from it and find shelter at Marie's place, she had to go back to that unfortunate story once again. She, then, took a deep breath to calm herself, and told her friend everything that had happened that day at the inn.

Marie could hardly cope with her anger toward Caleb Deheeger, and stated that she would pinch his face if he crossed her way. She was glad to hear that Daphne had shown him he can't step on her, and approved of Jesse's attempt to defend her. “I don't condone violence,” Marie said, “but that boy really deserved what he got!”

“I guess he did,” Daphne said a little uncertain, and preferred to keep to herself that Jesse had accidentally punched her as she tried to defend Caleb. She couldn't stop thinking that Jesse was going to kill him if others hadn't showed up to stop him.

Daphne also told her that Ben tried helping her.

“See, Jane was right in saying that boy likes you!” She said, and clapped, happily excited with that part of the story, almost as if she was watching one of her favorite TV shows.

“And he tried kissing me in his bed,” she told out of a sudden, as fast as she could. She much rather wanted to have kept that concealed, but Marie needed to know what had happened between them.

“What?” Marie asked, and abruptly stood up. “Oh, no. . . no. . . no. . . Please, don't tell me that –.”

“No, Marie! No, it isn't what you're thinking. I don't know why he leaned to kiss me, but the main problem is that Tammy saw everything.”

“Tammy witnessing that really isn't the main problem,” Marie said, distressed, and went on speaking angry French words.

“She insulted me. She kicked me out!”

And Marie continued with her French.

“I hate her. She made me really mad. I slapped her and then I left.”

“What?” Marie asked, startled.

“I slapped her.”

Marie, who had been pacing to calm herself, sat by Daphne once again.

“She insulted me. She called me a liar. She said I plotted with my father to move to the inn so I could seduce Benjamin. What was she thinking? She doesn't have the right to accuse people like that!”

“Wait, so is he –?”

“Is he what?”

“Her boyfriend? Is he her boyfriend, then?”

Daphne rubbed her forehead in annoyance. “Yes, I guess so. At least they behave like they are.”

“Oh my,” Tammy said, and looked like she seriously needed a moment to catch her breath.

“What's wrong with that?”

“When you said that Ben tried kissing you and that Tammy caught him, it actually didn't cross my mind that they were together.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, because Ben being her boyfriend makes everything way more complicated. Look, I'm not trying to defend Tammy, but I think her reaction is understandable based on what happened to her in the past.”

Daphne demanded to know the story, but Marie changed the subject asking what had happened to her legs. “I ran away to the woods and feel,” Daphne lied. Marie continued insisting to know more about this accident in the woods, until Daphne's headache worsened, and her body gave in to sleep.

When Daphne woke up later that day, Marie tried persuading her that she should call her parents to let them know about her new housing plans. Daphne, however, preferred to keep it from them.

“You don't know how hurtful it is when kids hide things from their parents,” Marie told her in a weak voice.

Daphne, who knew very well that Marie was referring to her own lack of information about Émiles' whereabouts, disregarded her friend's criticism.

Not that she didn't have respect for Marie's opinion, but she didn't want to let her family know that she had serious problems. Glenda would have, yes, good words of advice – but Abelard, on the other hand, would not miss the opportunity to say that he had foreseen all that. It was strategically better to keep them away from all this.

Luckily, to a certain extent, Daphne's fever came back higher that night. She was very restless in her sleep, and her dreams were nothing more than memories that tortured her. Marie stopped criticizing, and started saying good words, quick whispers in French, which Daphne did not understand, but sounded comforting. She took care of Daphne all night on Sunday, and all day on Monday.

Daphne was entirely recovered by Tuesday, to Marie's relief. Marie had been talking about sending her to see a doctor, which somewhere in Daphne was enough encouragement to get better quickly. She disliked going to hospitals. She was, in fact, afraid of doctors.

When she was three years old – and she remembered that very well, because that was the number of stitches she got on her head – she fell in her home's backyard. She was pretending to be a bunny, her favorite animal at that time, wearing a tiara with bunny ears that her mom had bought to her that week.

She didn't know precisely how that happened. She must have accidentally stepped on her shoe laces. All that Daphne could tell was that it felt as if something had suddenly grabbed her right foot, making her lose her balance and fall.

Unfortunately, when she fell she instinctively tried to stop herself from hitting the ground, but ended up miscalculating the movement – she was, after all, only three – and bashed her head on the wall.

At first, she did not cry. Contrary to what most people would have thought of her during her early and late teens, Daphne rarely cried as a kid. Not that she was exceptionally brave that day, but her head actually felt numb, instead of that burning-itching feeling she often got from hurting herself. She, then, stood up and rubbed it. When she looked at her hands, they were covered in blood from her head.

When she went to Abelard for help, he tried on his own to stop her from bleeding, but Glenda fortunately convinced him that she needed to see a doctor.

She was rushed to a hospital by them. Abelard was hysterical, Daphne remembered. She didn't, though, know the meaning of the word “hysterical,” but that's what a nurse called him.

A doctor took care of her. He cut her hair around the wound.

Her father wouldn't stop crying and refused to wash off her blood from his hands.

The doctor, who seemed oblivious to everything that was happening around him, told Daphne that she needed stitches. She didn't know what that meant.

“I need to sew your head,” he said. And then he smiled.

Daphne could still remember his smile. It was a smile that said that evil things would happen to her. She also remembered she looked at her parents for support, but they were too distracted. Abelard wouldn't stop crying. Glenda wouldn't stop trying to get him to stop crying. She soon realized she was alone.

Daphne went back to school on Wednesday. She had many things she needed to get done. Her assignments were seriously piling up, which was particularly dangerous to an English major. She had reading to do that felt like reading she would accomplish in a year, and the same amount of writing to get ready by the end of the week, before Halloween.

She enjoyed reading and writing, but both hobbies knew how to torture her when done under pressure.

She spent great part of the afternoon and evening studying in The Sphinx, because she didn't want to bother Marie upstairs. Marie's place was small. She lived in a cramped, little apartment right above the bookstore, which probably had been just an office in the past. It was hardly good enough even for just one person. Daphne could not understand how Marie and Émile had managed to live together.

Interestingly, though, she saw nothing that Émile could have left behind. She had been under the impression that he had abandoned his previous life, including his belongings, to become some sort of adventurer.

She had pictured him running away in the middle of the night wearing a black cloak with a hoodie to keep his identity concealed, and a backpack filled with a couple changes of clothes, a bottle of water and a sandwich, his savings from miserable summer jobs he had endured under the thought they would one day enable him to escape from Middleton, and the pocket knife his father, who should never be spoken of, had forgotten in a drawer before abandoning his wife and kid, but that was then regarded as his 12th-birthday gift.

Émile's bed was not there, though. It had vanished, for a traveler like him wouldn't simply put his bed on his head and walk away. All his clothes had also disappeared. Childhood toys were not there, not even buried deep within Marie's closet, which Daphne had explored in search of a spare umbrella Marie had told her to look for before she went to class that Wednesday.

The only indication that Émile had been there at all were photographs, many of them spread all over the apartment, of him and Marie at different occasions, mostly celebrating festivities and other holidays, at home. They looked happy together. It looked, though, as if the only photos she had of them together were only records of indoors activities.

An adventurer, Daphne thought, would have showed signs of his true identity from an early age. There were, though, no photos of a young Émile exploring the woods nearby. No photos of a teenager boy looking absolutely delighted camping and fishing with high school friends. Strangely, there was nothing that even remotely suggested that they were French, and Daphne was in doubt whether Émile had been born in France.

There were many questions lurking in Daphne's head, but Daphne found contempt in feeling that Émile probably had been happy living with Marie, who always fondly spoke of him. Although it was always clear that she missed him deeply, she never let such feelings embitter her. She seemed very aware that her son's goals were stronger than her natural motherly inclination to keep him constantly under her care, so she accepted his absence resignedly.

This very absence would have suggested that Marie could have found in Daphne a second opportunity to play the role of mother, sadly forgetting their friendship and embarking on the illusion that her son was finally back at home. She could have turned into a possessive, controlling woman, who tried to do at once everything that she could not do to keep Émile in Middleton. The nonexistence of that illusion, then, is what made living with Marie so special: Daphne knew that Marie didn't think she was Émile.

Everything she did as she took care of Daphne – the extra blankets, extra snacks, extra stubborn advice – was done with Daphne, and only Daphne, in mind. Her favor to let Daphne remain Daphne Chase was the strongest proof of friendship that Marie could have offered. For that reason in particular she endured with a smile the many interruptions that Marie caused to her studying.

Only Marie, though, was the lucky winner of such concession.

On Thursday evening, as Daphne desperately worked on her essay, she couldn't help sighing in disapproval at the sight of Mrs. Margaret Frank and Jane, who stood on the other side of the closest bookshelf unaware that Daphne could see and recognize their silhouettes on the floor.

“Margaret, Jane!” Daphne heard Marie happily greeting them. “Nice to see you!”

“Marie, I'm sorry to disturb you. It's so late, but only now we could leave the inn. I'm actually surprised that we found your bookstore open at this time,” Mrs. Frank said in her cautious, polite manner.

“The door – Oh, yes. Yes, it's just a new commercial strategy: late-night book selling!”

Daphne shuddered. She had forgotten to lock the door at 5:00 PM, when Marie went back to her apartment to prepare dinner.

“I hope it's going well,” Daphne heard Jane say in her usual joking tone.

It was weird to hear Jane's voice after a few days without contact. Daphne was a little startled to notice that the girl awfully sounded like Tammy.

“I heard from one of the boys in the inn, Benjamin, that Daphne Chase was here with you. Is she here at the moment?” Mrs. Frank asked, and Daphne immediately felt awful.

It had been her goal that week, at least while she had so many homework assignments to get done, to try to forget everything related to all that fighting and the incident with Ben – including informing Mr. and Mrs. Frank that she would be moving out from their inn to live with Marie. She had not taken into consideration that the poor woman would be dying of preoccupation to know why Daphne wasn't showing up.

“Daphne is here,” Marie said.

“Oh, thank God! I was so worried. Mr. Frank even wanted to go looking for her on campus,” Mrs. Frank said, and her voice cracked a little in genuine relief.

“I'm sorry, Margaret. She is here, yes. I'm sorry we did not contact you earlier this week – it's been really busy, Daphne with all her school work, the bookstore –.”

Daphne shuddered once again. She had promised Marie on the day after her arrival that she would call the Franks' Inn to let them know where she was and that she would be picking up her belongings soon.

“Oh, I understand. I felt so worried that after all that she could have gone back home by now. Daphne is a talented girl, and I was afraid that those boys stained her wish to continue studying. She even left all her books and clothes behind. I thought about calling her father to check if Daphne was with him, but Benjamin explained that she was here.”

How did Ben know?

“I'm really sorry you had to go through this. We were actually going to the inn tomorrow afternoon to pick up her things,” Marie lied.

“Oh, please, don't do that. It breaks my heart to think that my inn was such a nuisance to her. I believe she could give us a second chance. Please, where is she? I would like to speak with her,” Mrs. Frank asked.

Daphne instinctively stood up, though felt unable to announce her presence. She waited still until Marie called her.

She mentally counted to ten before she went to greet Mrs. Frank and Jane. She didn't want to give the impression that she had been there listening all this time. Those seconds also helped her to calm down. She had no idea how to say to Mrs. Frank she could not return to the inn.

Daphne took a deep breath, rubbed her forehead a few times, and went to talk with them.

“Hello. Mrs. Frank, Jane, how are you?” Daphne asked.

“I should be asking that,” Jane said, and hugged her. “Don't talk too much,” she whispered in her ear.

Daphne did her best to keep her countenance calm. Although the expression on Jane's face was friendly, Daphne didn't know what to think. Was Jane mad at her? Daphne felt bad to think she might have left a bad impression on her.

Tammy, after all, was Jane's sister. It was practically certain that Ben's betrayal was enough reason for Jane to change her allegiance and side with her sister.

“I'm fine, Mrs. Frank, I'm sorry. I should have called you earlier, but so many things happened, and –,” Daphne said, but Mrs. Frank interrupted her.

“Please, don't worry. I'm here to apologize. How are you, really? I'm sorry all that happened. I don't understand how civilized boys could suddenly decide to solve love issues with such brutality. I don't agree with how they dealt with everything, but would you be kind to allow me the chance to say a word or two in their defense?”

Daphne looked from Marie, who seemed very confused, to Jane, who remained impassive beside her grandmother. Daphne had absolutely no idea where that conversation was going, but thought at that point it would be safer to follow the advice Jane had whispered to her.

“Yes?” It was all that Daphne could say.

“On the day Caleb and Jesse fought I did not understand why they behaved so aggressively. I confess I was very nervous, after all I thought those boys got along well. But Jane explained everything to me, and I now understand why they fought.”

“Yes, Margaret?” Marie asked in an anxious manner, and then stopped herself so Mrs. Frank could continue talking.

“Forgive the intrusion, Daphne, but a relationship with two boys at the same time would never work.”

Daphne blushed.

“A relationship with two boys?” Daphne repeated, surprised, and in reprimand received a stern look from Jane.

“Daphne Chase!\'' Marie exclaimed, and slapped the back of Daphne's left hand.” How many times have I told you not to play with those boys' feelings? “”

Daphne looked at her, puzzled. Marie had to be punishing her for not having remembered to lock the door.

“Oh, please do not be so strict with her, Marie,” Mrs. Frank said, “because these things happen at this age. For example, when I was Daphne's age, I did something similar.”

“Grandma?” Jane asked, startled.

“Yes, dear, it was before I met your grandfather. I was confused and I let two boys, God forgive me, believe that I liked them. The result, I must say, was not good. As Caleb and Jesse, they found out what was happening, and fought for me.”


“It's true. It was not a beautiful thing to see. No, it was nothing like the novels I used to read at that time. One of them, poor boy, was sent to the hospital with a broken rib!”

“Margaret!” Marie said, although she seemed quite amused by the story.

“Yes, my dear, it's nothing that would make me proud today. My father was furious. My mother - my mother stopped talking with me for a whole week. They considered sending me to a boarding school outside the country. Truth is, I would gladly have gone. After all that, I felt very ashamed to go outside. The neighbors talked about me. It was the main gossip in Middleton. Jane, I don't know how your grandfather had the courage to approach me after all the things he probably heard about me. Mr. Frank is a saint!”

“So it seems…” Jane said, mechanically.

“Well, Daphne, I came here to ask you to return to the inn. I thought about expelling the boys, but after Jane explained everything, I realized that they are victims of passion. They are good kids, and I know that when things get calmer, you will be friends in the future. I'm sad to think that this may be affecting your studies, your writing. How's your book?”

Daphne blinked.

“My book? It is – fine, I guess. Yes, I'm fine. I mean, my book is.”

Mrs. Frank, who had a benevolent expression, looked like she didn't believe what Daphne had said.

“I heard you like to write here in Marie's bookstore, but your father asked us to arrange your room according to what he said would be the best environment for your work. It is terrible to think that you used that room for such a short amount of time. Please, think again, and reconsider returning to the inn.”

Daphne, whose forehead was burning, didn't know what to say.

Jane, fortunately, came to her rescue.

“She'll think about it, Grandma.”

“Do you promise, Daphne? Promise you'll think about it,” Mrs. Frank insisted, this time gently holding Daphne's hands in supplication.

“I promise,” Daphne said.

“Do you want me to talk with the boys for you? I already told them that with fighting they wouldn't solve this problem,” Mrs. Frank said.

Daphne's eyes widened.

“No, no. I – I'll do that myself. I don't want to cause more problems.”

“It's not a problem. I understand everything you're going through.”

“I do too, Daphne,” Jane added.

“And so do I,” Marie said.

Mrs. Frank's look was genuinely concerned and kind. Daphne felt bad lying to her, but under those circumstances lying was the only escape route she had. It made her sick, however, to imagine what Caleb and Jesse could be thinking about all this – and even more to imagine herself in a love triangle with them. Jesse, let alone Caleb, were the last boys on Earth who would interest her.

“Thanks,” Daphne said, “I'll think about it.”

A little more convinced that her presence had caused some positive effect in Daphne, Mrs. Frank said goodbye to her and Marie because it was already late. Daphne sighed, relieved, thinking she would be able to go back to writing her paper, but Jane decided to stay a little longer, insisting to her grandmother that she needed to speak with Daphne some more. Mrs. Frank did not like the idea of leaving her granddaughter to return home alone, but in the end she was convinced that nothing bad would happen to her.

“There is no violence in Middleton,” Jane said, which sounded pretty ironic in Daphne's ears.After much insisting, Mrs. Frank let herself be persuaded. Jane was too stubborn and would not give up easily.

On her way out, though, Mrs. Frank turned to Daphne once again. She had the expression of one who forgot to ask something essential.

“Daphne, dear, please tell me one thing: are you in love with one of them?”

Her question, however, caught Daphne off guard.

“Me? No, no, Mrs. Frank. . . It was nothing.”

Mrs. Frank seemed more relieved.

“Good to know. I was afraid you were using one to make the other jealous. If that were the case, everything would be much more complicated,” she said and then allowed herself a smile. “Please, do think about everything I said. I hope to see you soon in my inn. It will be a pleasure hosting you again. Good evening, Daphne. Jane, come home soon. Good night, Marie.”

When Mrs. Frank left The Sphinx, Marie and Jane stared at Daphne as if expecting her to say something. Marie, with her arms crossed over her chest, looked tense. Even Jane, who always seemed to do everything not to show how she truly was feeling, seemed slightly anxious to know what were Daphne's thoughts.

Daphne, contrary to what the audience expected, had nothing to say. She was worried about getting her school assignments done, and would rather not think about the Franks' Inn.

Tension, however, worsened to the extent that a single look exchanged between Marie and Jane unexpectedly triggered a fit of laughter of gigantic proportions. The two even needed to hold on to each other not to fall.

Feeling upset for being their joke, Daphne turned on her heel and went to the back of the bookstore. The desk where she had been studying seemed strangely pathetic: the many sheets of paper slightly reflected the light of the lamp she had brought downstairs from Marie's apartment. That pool of light was so small and helpless compared to the gloomy universe that was The Sphinx, that Daphne couldn't help feeling a little depressed.

“I'm sorry,” Marie said on the other side of the bookcase, as she pulled Jane to go talk with Daphne. “Sorry,” she insisted, once they appeared.

Jane, whose face was already scarlet, was still laughing. Marie poked her a few times to make her stop, but Jane was out of control.

“Are you going to continue laughing?” Daphne asked, annoyed. “If you haven't noticed, I have a lot to study.”

“I've already stopped,” Marie said quickly in self-defense and then poked Jane in the ribs once again.

“In love!” Jane said with difficulty, doing her best to stop laughing. “In love with Caleb!” And the girl went on with a renewed wave of laughter.

Marie, standing beside her, crossed her arms. Jane's laughter was beginning to bother her too. She, then, looked at Daphne as if asking her to remain calm.

“Oh, come on, it isn't that funny,” Marie said.

But Jane continued with her laughing fit.

“Come on, Jane, stop it. Otherwise, I'll send you back to your grandparents' inn this minute,” she threatened.

The true Jane, still engulfed by her laughter, was luckily able to hear Marie. She covered her mouth with both hands, stiffened her back, and closed her eyes to concentrate on pulling herself together.

Daphne and Marie gave the girl a few minutes, and waited as she took deep breaths. When Jane was finally quiet and seemed to be regaining control over herself, Marie said, “All right, my dear girl, you got loads to tell us.”

Jane looked as if she had just wrestled for her life. Streams of tears ran on her cheeks as she tried to articulate her apologies. Her eyes glistened, and she moved her head in a drowsy manner.

“Hey, sorry,” Jane told Daphne, when she noticed she still looked annoyed. “I just thought it was hilarious that Grandma asked if you were in love with one of the boys,” she explained, and allowed herself a smile. “I know even Caleb would have laughed.”

Daphne felt uneasy. She hated that Jane always defended him.

“Why did you lie to Mrs. Frank?” Daphne asked, dryly.

Jane, who up until then had kept her good mood, frowned.

“What did you want me to do? My grandparents can't know everything that goes on in our lives. Did you know that Grandpa has been sick since Sunday? He is in bed right now, probably still awake with that fever torturing him.”

Mon Dieu. Is he all right?” Marie asked, alarmed.

“Grandpa is the type who hides pain from others, but I know he is suffering. He had a high fever this afternoon, and since Sunday he barely eats. That is why we haven't visited you earlier. Ben stayed taking care of him tonight, so Grandma and I could come here.”

Marie liked the Franks, and told Jane she would be visiting Tobias the next day. Since there wasn't a lot she could at the moment, she demanded to know everything that was going on at the inn.

“The inn was a mess on Sunday,” Jane told them. “Everywhere we looked, there was something to solve, a problem to deal with. My grandparents went back and forth from Jesse's room to Caleb's. Mr. Schneider, our doctor, arrived pretty fast to take care of Caleb, and I stayed with them for some time. He's fine, don't worry. Just got a few bruises and his pride badly injured, I suppose. And. . . Tammy is gone.”

Daphne couldn't help jerking her head back in surprise.

“Tammy,” she murmured, starting to feel distressed. So the writing in the air had really worked.

“Yeah, she decided to be a jerk and announced, shouting like a crazy seagull for everyone to listen, that she was moving out. Can you imagine that? She's such – she's –argh, I can't think about her now,” Jane said, annoyed.

Daphne was very surprised. “So, you mean she left on her own?”

“Yes, how else would she leave? It's not like Ben wanted to be with her after you-know-what happened.”

She blushed, but decided to ignore Jane's indication that she knew about the kiss. She was more interested in Tammy's reason to leave, since she clearly had not been kidnapped by bandits in real life. She was starting to understand that everything she had lived with Apollo was simply in her mind, and felt a little foolish for trying to interfere when she regretted what she saw.

“Why did she leave?” Marie asked.

“Because, once again, she's going after Luciano,” Jane said in a matter-of-fact manner.

“Who's Luciano?” Daphne asked, trying to pull herself together. Jane, however, gave her an incredulous look and laughed.

“Wow, don't you ever gossip? Luciano is my sister's husband. Well, only technically. They've been separated for a year now. But she goes after him quite often. Last time she went begging for them to get back together was just a few months ago, when she went to Ashland.”

“But isn't she with –,” Marie said, but Jane cut in.

“Ben? Unlikely. After everything that happened, I think they broke up.”

Daphne trembled slightly, and Jane grinned. Despite what Jane thought, though, she had shuddered only because she had remembered where she had heard the name of that town. On the way to Middleton, the bus had stopped in a city – Ashland, yes, that was it – to pick up a few more passengers, who in fact were Tammy and Andre.

“That's awful,” Daphne said in a loud whisper, and was surprised for doing so. Jane and Marie looked at her equally surprised.

Jane then confessed she felt very worried when she saw her sister packing her bags on Sunday, after Daphne left, because her grandparents seemed as if they were on the verge of having a heart attack.

“I went to Ben and demanded to know what had happened in his room to leave her like that. He didn't want to tell me a thing. That is so like him. But I convinced him to tell me,” Jane said, and looked at Daphne with glistening eyes. “Thank you for stealing him back. He told me about the kiss, and he told me you slapped Tammy. Thank you very much. You have no idea how she deserved that!”

“I didn't steal him back,” Daphne said, abruptly. “And the kiss didn't happen. He tried to kiss me. But it didn't happen.”

“Whether the kiss happened or not, I'm sorry to inform you that you did steal him back. At least that's the impression my sister got,” Jane said, and then added more excitedly, “He was ready to leave the inn on Sunday. He wanted to go out looking for you, did you know that? He said he wouldn't stay there any longer. I had to beg for him to stay, otherwise he would probably be. . . here by now, I suppose?”

Marie shook her head. “I don't think I'd be hosting him as well.”

“Well, he promised to stay a little longer when I told him Grandma and Grandpa wouldn't understand his leaving, and would actually think it was their fault. I told him 'they'll think you're leaving because the inn is a bad place. Because their house isn't good enough. Because everyone here makes Daphne's life a nightmare.' All that would crush them. So, he stayed.”

Jane said she felt even more worried when she overheard her grandparents talking with Tammy in the office. Mrs. Frank didn't approve of Tammy's decision, and Mr. Frank was trying to convince her she was safer living with them at the inn.

“She showed no respect for them,” Jane said, cringing her teeth. “She never does. She told them she would only be happy if she lived far from Middleton, far from them.” Jane, then, explained that since she was a child, she always thought that Tammy never showed gratitude for living with her grandparents. “After our parents' death, they took care of us. They could have abandoned us, left us in an orphanage, but they took care of us as if we were their own children.”

On Sunday, as her grandparents dealt with Tammy, Jane went to Caleb and Jesse. She went to them before her grandparents asked any more questions. When the doctor who had been taking care of the boys left the inn, Jane made Caleb promise he would lie to her grandparents when they asked him what was the reason of the fight.

“I told him to say that he was in love with Daphne. My plan was that he found out she was having an affair with Jesse, so they fought for her. I knew that if he said he was heartbroken and explained this would not happen again, he would have a chance to stay and my grandparents wouldn't suffer as much.”

Jane said it wasn't difficult to convince Caleb. Jesse, on the other hand, was inflexible. “I had to tell him, 'Listen, boy, you don't have any choice. I know you were probably trying to defend her, but you almost killed Caleb. Grandpa and Grandma have the right, the duty to kick you out. And then what's going to happen? Your mom, that fine lady, will come all the way to Middleton. I remember her. Do you really want your mother to come solve your problems?” '

Daphne remembered Jesse's mother very well. She was a big lady with a constant annoyed expression. She had fought a man who called her fat, and seemed to be the type of person who should never be bothered.

“Why didn't the boy agree?” Marie asked.

“He did agree, later, after an hour of talking. Jesse is a little on the dumb side,” she said, and then added quickly to Daphne, “Sorry, I know he is your friend. But if he had controlled himself, none of this would be happening.”

It was appalling how nobody sought the truth. Didn't Jane know what truly had motivated that fight? Had not Caleb told them he had offended Jesse in the corridor that afternoon? Had not Caleb mentioned a thing about going to pester Daphne once again? Daphne opened her mouth to protest, but Jane interrupted her.

“I hate that my grandparents had to go through all that. They are old and fragile. They shouldn't be in the middle of this hurricane!” Jane said, and started crying.

Marie hugged her. “Don't cry, they'll be fine,” she said, gently rocking her in her arms to comfort her.

Like all who are comforted when crying, Jane did not seem to be listening to Marie's words. While crying, she mumbled about all the rage she felt for her sister. Although she wasn't the only person to be blamed for her grandparents' problems, to Jane it was as if Tammy were the primary reason for the problems at the inn. She kept crying, biting her lips so hard that they were soon sore and stained with blood.

Daphne, however, had trouble feeling compassion for her. She wanted, truly, to be receptive to Jane's suffering, but she couldn't help thinking that the girl was more like her sister than she knew. In so many ways, in personality, and even in little mannerisms.

“Do you really hate your sister that much?” Daphne asked. She couldn't help feeling a little disappointed in Jane. Daphne knew how siblings could be annoying at times, but she couldn't picture herself feeling such strong dislike for them. Although she had enough reasons to be Tammy's enemy, hitting her on Sunday was nothing that she was proud of, particularly after the scene with the bandits.

Jane let go of Marie and stared at the left wall for a few seconds, as if mentally debating what to say.

“I'll go make tea. Chamomile?” Marie asked and left without waiting to hear their response.

Daphne didn't want to be left alone with Jane. She didn't want to be dragged into the Franks' universe once again. Away from Abelard, Daphne was loosing her ability to patiently listen to people's problems.

“Yes, I hate her that much,” Jane finally said and then took a deep breath as if trying to calm torturing thoughts. She looked at Daphne for a few seconds, observing her with glistening eyes, and then wiped her tears. “I know you are judging me, but I don't care. I'm not secretive about my feelings. Well, perhaps only when I want to protect my grandparents. Tammy, though, knows precisely how I feel about her. Earlier, you asked me why I had lied to Grandma. Well, I'll tell you again that they can't know everything that goes on. If they knew half of the things that happen at that inn, they would be dead by now. Tammy is too cruel, she only thinks of herself, and she doesn't try to protect them like I do. They always have to deal with the mess that is her life. They now have to cope with another of her attempts to save her marriage. Fake marriage, that is!”

Jane took a deep breath once again. Her eyes glistened even more when a lonely tear ran down her right cheek.

“I was not judging you,” Daphne lied, and was about to leave, when Jane suddenly grabbed her left wrist. Alarmed by that sudden movement, Daphne's heart skipped a beat.

“I came here to ask you to come back to the inn,” Jane suddenly said, which took Daphne by surprise. After all the trouble she had caused, Daphne didn't think Jane would ask her to return. Her presence, after all, represented more of a headache.

“I can't,” was all that Daphne could say, and she tried to free herself from Jane, but the latter continued holding her wrist tightly.

“Of course you can! What are you afraid of? My sister no longer lives with us. She went away, despite my grandparents' pleas.”

“I can't,” Daphne said, and this time managed to escape from Jane's grip.

Daphne was getting nervous, and didn't want to return to the Franks' Inn even if it had suddenly become the most peaceful place on Earth. She went toward the stairs, but Jane desperately reached her and stood between Daphne and the first step.

“Don't be selfish,” Jane whispered, looking above her shoulder a few times to Marie's apartment entrance, possibly out of fear that Marie could be listening. “What are you afraid of? Is it because of Caleb? He won't bother you. He promised me he would leave you alone. I will personally take care that you have the silence you need to finish your book.”

Jane's words annoyed Daphne even more.

“The silence I need?” She repeated indignantly, but Jane ignored the tone of it.

“You will be able to write, I promise. Isn't that what matters to you? My grandparents are the most important thing to me in this world, and for their good I would do anything. So, go back to the inn. I know my grandfather has been sad since you left us. We caught him on Monday trying to get out to go look for you on campus. He wanted to apologize to you personally. We didn't have your phone number, just the one from your home in Lavinia. Grandma wanted to call your father, but Ben said you'd be with Marie.”

“Why not call here, then?”

“Because Ben came here on Monday. He said you were sick, so we didn't want to bother you.”

Daphne frowned.

“Ben came here?”

“Yes. He left on Monday saying that he was going to go looking for you, which calmed my grandparents a little.”

The girl's thoughts were in turmoil. For a second, she felt flattered. The idea of Ben coming to see her awakened a little joy in her heart. But, suddenly she started to feel bad.

“He lied,” Daphne said. “Ben didn't come here.”

“What are you talking about? Of course he came here. So you're going to tell me you were not sick?”

Daphne, indeed, had had a high fever. But all these days at Marie's she had not seen Ben at all. In fact, she had not seen him since Sunday.

“Yes, I was, but it's just a coincidence. I didn't see him. He never came here. Benjamin is a liar!” Daphne said, angry.

“He didn't lie,” Marie said from the top of the stairs.

Daphne looked at her, confused. Marie went downstairs to join them. Her face was pure calmness, but her hands betrayed her. Marie distractedly twisted her own fingers, occasionally cracking her knuckles with such nervous vigor, like an injured soldier bravely bites a piece of cloth in a last effort to alleviate the pain of an undressed wound.

“I'm sorry, Daphne, but that boy did come here on Monday looking for you. You were sleeping when he arrived. I didn't tell you, because I didn't want to worry you even more,” Marie said, and then addressed Jane, “He didn't mention Tobias' health state, or that Tobias and Margaret were anxious to hear news from Daphne. He was, in fact, very inarticulate.”

“What did he want from me?” Daphne asked, and was surprised at her own eagerness.

“He simply asked if you were here. He wanted to speak with you, but I told him you were sick and shouldn't be disturbed,” Marie said, once again twisting her fingers as she spoke.

Marie didn't know how to lie, and Daphne knew very well that she was hiding something.

“That's what he told us,” Jane said. “Ben explained that Daphne was here with Marie and that she was sick.”

“Is he still at the inn?” Daphne asked, alarmed after a bad thought crossed her mind.

“Yes, he is,” Jane said. “I spoke with him again on Monday about his plans, and he confessed he would like to return to Lavinia to live with his parents. It doesn't seem like he's doing well at college and I guess he feels like he's a different person here. Luckily, his friends from home showed up and are keeping him in Middleton. They're still at the inn, and I think they're staying over for Halloween. I think you know them, Daphne. They're Ted and Sam, and went to the same school you guys did.”

Jane never failed in showing how much she knew about Daphne's life. Yes, she knew who Ted and Sam were: Ben's best friends during high school. The three were inseparable, and she always saw them together during recess, in the few social events to which she had ventured to go, and sometimes in the movie theater line.

Ted Finley was a tall boy, though not as tall as Ben, with freckles all over his nose and cheeks. He kept his hair, which was very red, wild like a lion's mane. She remembered him as being particularly rude in public, always shoving in his mouth more food than he could possibly chew.

Sam Li was a polite boy, though perhaps not as polite as Ben. When not with his friends, it was a mathematical certainty to find him in the tutors' office, where he helped ESL students improve their writing and speaking. He was a talented, and very patient student.

If you are wondering, Daphne had been a writing tutor herself during high school.

“Yes, I know who they are,” Daphne said distractedly.

“Marie, tell her to come back to the inn,” Jane asked in one last attempt to convince Daphne.

Marie, however, was adamant. She shook her head, and nervously walked to the other side of the library.

“I'm afraid I can't ask her that,” she said. “Daphne is doing fine here. She wasn't happy at the inn.”

“But my grandfather is sick. He'll only get better if Daphne return to live with us!”

“Jane, please, Daphne has no ability to do extraordinary healing that would cure Tobias just with her presence. Tomorrow we'll see him, and our visit we'll sure be enough to make him feel calmer, to make him see that Daphne is under good care,” Marie said, despite the ugly faces Jane made as she spoke.

“You don't know the harm you're doing!” Jane cried and left quickly, very offended, slamming the door behind her.

Daphne and Marie were silent for a few seconds, until the kettle whistling upstairs reminded Marie that she was boiling water to make tea.

“This time don't forget to lock the door. Good night,” Marie said in a discouraged tone, and slowly went up the steps to her apartment.

The girl stood there, quietly, seriously thinking of Benjamin Wallace for the first time after the incident at the inn. Thinking of Ben, who always brought so much trouble to her life, Daphne wondered what that kiss – or, rather, the attempted kiss – meant to her.

Daphne paced, rubbing her forehead as she tried to find a solution to her new dilemma.

Ben had come looking for her on Monday. He wanted to talk with her. He wanted to tell her something. Just to imagine what it could be, left Daphne even more nervous. She knew that Marie probably had said something rude to him, otherwise the boy would have returned.

He's a very adequate guy, despite everything that happened, she thought. They both came from Lavinia, both had attended classes at the same school and were now going to the same college. Perhaps, deep inside, Ben was the only person in Middleton who understood her.

Smiling, Daphne distractedly sat at her desk to continue studying, but couldn't concentrate. She needed to decide whether she would return or not to the inn, to the place where Ben lived.

It was past 3:00 AM when she fell asleep, resting her head on her unfinished paper, wandering into sad dreams. Her pencil had just rolled off the desk to her lap, when the bookstore door – which for the second time she had forgotten to lock – slowly opened and a hooded figure sneaked into The Sphinx.

Chapter 13
Abstract chapter design

When Daphne overheard Ben's voice coming from the dining room, her heart skipped a beat and a warm rush went through her body.

It was an inner feeling, something deep inside her that made her happy and excited, and very nervous too. She felt so excited, that she deliberately left Mrs. Frank and Marie talking in the living room, without an explanation on where she was going to go, and went down the corridor hypnotized by the boy's voice.

Daphne was about to enter the dining room, when someone grabbed her arm and pulled her back so violently that her shoulder made a cracking noise.

“What the –,” Daphne said, but a hand quickly covered her mouth and shoved her to the side, keeping her back close to the wall as he, a tall, hooded figure, nervously looked over his shoulder a few times to make sure she had not attracted attention to them.

Chattering in the living room and dining room continued normally.

Daphne was so startled that she wanted to cry for help, but remained quiet. She couldn't help feeling, despite the events last Sunday, that it would be the silliest thing to cry for help in a house full of people.

The hooded person gestured for her to stay silent.

She tried to remain calm, and blinked a few times to show that she was cooperating. Cautiously, he uncovered her mouth and stepped back.

He was wearing a black hoodie, which kept his face shadowed, and huge sunglasses that made his nose look strangely small for his face.

“I need to talk with you,” he said in a whisper, finally breaking the silence.

Although surprised and curious, she felt unable to say a thing.

“Disappointing,” he said, still whispering, and sighed. “I was starting to get used to that side of you that speaks up, that is brave and loud, that slaps now and then.”

Daphne then recognized his voice, and thought of Apollo, who always borrowed Caleb's voice to speak with her. But, observing her own physical reaction, she decided to trust her instincts that she in fact was dealing with the real owner of that voice.

Her heart was racing in fear, and her body got cold. Her expression was so dramatically surprised, he understood she had realized who he was.

“I also thought you were a better observer,” he said, and allowed himself a smile, before adding, “I'm surprised you didn't seem to recognize me right away.”

“Leave me alone,” Daphne mumbled, and tried to walk away, but Caleb grabbed her arm.

“Aren't you ever going to thank me?” He asked her.


“I never told him who you really are,” Caleb told her under his breath. “He doesn't know that you – How can I phrase this? That you see things that normal people can't. He still thinks you're his perfect Daphne.”

Daphne's mouth fell open. It had been a long time since the incident in front of The Sphinx, when Caleb witnessed her distress at having a thundering cloud above her head. Even those clouds, along with the pair of feathery wings she got in an adventure in the woods, had disappeared for reasons she didn't know. At first, she had been afraid he would bring up what he had seen against her, but since he never even mentioned it again, she had completely forgotten about it.

“What? No, you're wrong,” she said, nervously.

“You know I'm not.”

“I'm not –,” Daphne said, raising her voice in a high pitch, but stopped herself to continue in a whisper, “crazy. I'm not crazy, Caleb. That's a very serious accusation.”

“Wait a second, I didn't call you crazy. I just said you could see things that other people can't. Depending on the perspective you see this, that could even be a great quality. If you were in a book, it would make you so special that you'd certainly be the heroine.”

Daphne didn't feel like talking with him, and fighting was just as much useless. She couldn't admit what truly had happened that day, but would do her best at acquiescing to whatever he said to get rid of him faster.

“What do you want from me?” She asked.

“Well, now that you're officially my ex, so tells me Jane, I want you to thank me. I could have used your special ability against you, but I didn't. So, think twice before you go on giving speeches about all I can say to offend you is stuff about your physical appearance. We both know our relationship has a lot more baggage than that.”

She was surprised. Nonetheless, his chivalry was flawed.

“I've never done anything to you,” she whispered, getting sidetracked as she thought of how unfairly he had always treated her.

He stiffened his back, building up his defenses.

“You've never done anything to me, but you've done stuff to my friend, which in my world means the same thing. If you offend him, you offend me. That, if you didn't know, is called friendship and loyalty.”

“I've already apologized to him.”

“So I've heard.”

“Can't you just leave me alone, then?”

“Not until you thank me for keeping your secret,” he said with a cynical smile.

“I don't – All right, all right, if that's what you want. Thank you, Caleb. Thank you so much,” she said, and mentally added for making my life a living hell.

He smiled, satisfied. “See, we're making progress.” Again serious, added, “Now, there's something else I'd like to talk with you,” he said, and took his sunglasses off.

Although the corridor was poorly lit, the little bit of that afternoon sunlight escaping from the living room windows was enough to expose how awfully bruised his eyes were. His eyelids, and the skin around them, were all but the right color. When he pulled the hoodie down, Daphne gasped when she saw how swollen his face was. It was grotesque. She had never thought Caleb to be a charming young man, but the fight with Jesse had definitely taken away whatever beauty trace he had.

“It is, believe it or not, getting better,” he said, and all of a sudden was strangely shy.

Although she hated him, she wanted to ask how he was doing. It wasn't her pride, though, what stopped her. She was speechless because she hadn't learned how to have a civilized conversation with him, and because she was shocked. She had never seen anyone so injured, and couldn't help feeling guilty, even though she knew all that had been his own fault.

Sensing her thoughts, he looked a little awkward standing there with her. Even his arrogance was now very faint, almost nonexistent, as he seemed to be mentally weighing the best words to say to her. His eyes, buried in the swollen mess that was his face, looked different. They were the eyes of someone insecure, perhaps even fragile.

When Caleb was finally ready to tell her the thoughts he was struggling with, Ben's voice in the dining room startled both of them. Daphne's heart jumped with joy, and she was immediately on tip-toe, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of him.

She then knew, in that mysterious way emotions work, she had to talk with him and try to mend the friendship she now regretted she had refused.

“Excuse me,” she said, distractedly, and turned to go to the dining room, but Caleb pulled her back once again, and she was reminded of the grudge she held against him.

“I'm not done talking,” he said in an impatient whisper.

The way his eyes then sparked frightened her, and her body trembled in fear that he wanted to take revenge for his fight with Jesse.

“I already said thank you, what else do you want from me?” She asked in a weak voice.

She felt terrible for showing she was afraid of him, and deep inside foolishly hoped that any time soon Ben would appear in the corridor, and noticing that she was in trouble, he would rescue her as he had done on Sunday.

“I'm gonna warn you just this time, so listen carefully,” he said between his teeth. “Stop playing with his feelings. Ben's already considering dropping out of McAdams, so stop making his life so difficult.”

Daphne's heart sank.

“I'm not playing with his feelings. You have no right to –,” she said, but stopped when he abruptly pulled his hoodie up and put his sunglasses back on. It was like he wasn't listening to her.

She turned to see what Caleb was looking at, and was surprised to find Marie and Mrs. Frank standing in the corridor with them.

Both women looked tense and concerned, thought for different reasons. While Marie was worried for Daphne's safety, Mrs. Frank was anxious and visibly hopeful that Daphne and Caleb were solving their romantic problems.

“I'm sorry to interrupt,” Mrs. Frank said with a smile, “but we're going to see Mr. Frank now.”

“Let's go, Daphne,” Marie said, and grabbed Daphne's wrist in a protective way.

“We'll talk later,” Caleb said, quickly, when they turned to leave.

“She's busy. She has homework to do,” Marie said with a stern look, and pulled Daphne away from him. He said nothing.

As they went up the stairs, Marie put her arm around Daphne and gave her a little hug of encouragement. Daphne, whose spirits were low after talking with Caleb, mentally cherished that gesture. She finally felt she had a friend who would undoubtedly protect her from everything and everyone.

When Daphne, Marie and Mrs. Frank entered Mr. Frank's bedroom, they caught him sitting by a window with a longing expression. Because Mrs. Frank had opened the door carefully, worried that she would end up waking him in case he was still napping, he didn't notice them at first. His distraction allowed Daphne time to see that Jane had been right in her concern for his health.

It looked as if in those last days Tobias Frank had aged for a period of one year. His complexion was too pale, and reflected those afternoon sun rays creating a glowing aura around him. His hair was very white, which also contributed to that bright, halo effect. His arms were crossed over his chest, exposing his bony elbows. And his legs, covered by a woolen blanket, formed a cadaverous silhouette.

He looks more fragile than ever.

When she noticed that her husband was out of bed, Mrs. Frank looked alarmed. Her eyes, Daphne noticed, sparked, and she frowned with a maternal, impatient expression. It was as if she had caught one of her children repeating a mistake she had been trying to correct.

“Tobias, I told you not to get near the window,” she said, startling him. “It's cold.”

When he shuddered, Daphne thought that Mr. Frank's body was going to disassemble in his chair. He was then even more startled when he noticed Marie and Daphne were in his room, especially when he saw the latter.

“Daphne,” he exclaimed, rising clumsily and faltering a little because of his weak legs. “I was waiting for you. How are you? Please, sit down, sit down,” he said, and tried to pull his chair to her.

Mrs. Frank ran up to him, and after gently releasing his hands from the chair, she pulled it herself for Daphne to sit down by his bed. For a second, Mr. Frank looked slightly offended; but, when he looked back at Daphne, a silly expression formed on his face, and he was temporarily oblivious to everything, from his sickness to Mrs. Frank forcing him to return to bed.

“I'm fine,” Daphne said faintly. She felt bad to see him in that state.

As Mrs. Frank adjusted his pillows and tried to make him feel more comfortable back in bed, Marie occupied Mrs. Frank with questions about his health.

Mr. Frank raised his eyebrows a few times, politely listening to Marie. Daphne could see, however, that he seemed anxious to speak.

Sitting up in his bed, Mr. Frank waited for the best opportunity to speak with Daphne. His wait, in fact, left her feeling a little awkward. She didn't know what to do or what to say, so she simply sat quietly, doing her best to pretend she was comfortable there. The truth, however, was that Daphne's thoughts pestered her and left her feeling restless. She couldn't stop thinking about Caleb's words and about Ben's wish to leave.

To everyone's surprise, Mr. Frank started to cough convulsively. Alarmed, Mrs. Frank and Marie tried to help him. Daphne stood up, perplexed, as she watched his face become more and more red as he choked up. Mrs. Frank outstretched a hand to get the glass of water that was on the bedside table, but Mr. Frank accidentally bumped his hand into it, and the cup fell on the floor. Daphne jumped back as bright, tiny pieces of glass went flying everywhere.

Mrs. Frank rubbed and gently patted his back to help him breath, but Mr. Frank continued coughing. Already desperate, Mrs. Frank then announced that she was going to call the doctor. Mr. Frank, however, raised a hand to stop her from leaving the room, and miraculously started getting better.

Marie, however, suggested that Mrs. Frank still should call the doctor. Mr. Frank, then, raised his hand once again to also keep Marie from rushing into that.

“I am fine,” he said with a weak voice. “I'm feeling better. There's no need to call Schneider.”

“But, Tobias –,” Mrs. Frank protested, but he interrupted her.



“I'd like to have some water, please.”

Mrs. Frank instinctively looked at the bedside table, and was then reminded that his glass of water had broken down.

“Oh, yes, I'll fetch you some!” She said, and left the room looking reluctant to leave her husband's side.

With Mrs. Frank gone, Marie stood at his bedside and held his hands with a troubled expression.

“I'm so sorry that you're going through all this,” she said. “Wouldn't it be better to call Dr. Schneider, Tobias? He would be able to say if you indeed are fine.”

“I am not,” Mr. Frank suddenly said, which alarmed Marie. She leaned forward and tenderly touched his face.

“What's the matter? How are you feeling?”

“Cold,” he said with a smile; and Marie smiled too, relieved that it wasn't anything more serious. “I forgot to ask Margaret to bring another blanket. Would you be kind, my friend, to go get another blanket from the wardrobe downstairs, the one by the office?”

“Of course. I'll go get it right now,” Marie said and then walked away. When she reached the door, however, she abruptly stopped and looked at Daphne. “Please, take care of him and let us know if he feels ill,” she said.

Daphne promptly nodded, like a good nurse to whom the life of a patient loved by everyone had been entrusted. But, once she found herself alone in the room with Mr. Frank, she realized the difficult situation she had gotten herself into. She, of all people in that house, was the least qualified to take care of someone. Daphne, although very willing to help and be useful, always got stuck when facing tense situations. Although her mind was clear, it was as if every muscle in her body suddenly petrified and no longer responded to her command.

She felt awkward and unable to look at Mr. Frank. She still was a little in shock after watching his coughing fit and felt that her legs were very stiff. Daphne opted to stare at her shoes, but this time they were surrounded by broken glass. She, then, quickly raised her head, concerned that Mr. Frank would wrongly suspect her of being bothered by the mess he had accidentally caused.

“I apologize if I scared you,” Mr. Frank said, startling Daphne. She then was even more uncomfortable for shuddering, and immediately blushed.

“That's all right, Mr. Frank,” Daphne mumbled. “I hope you are getting better,” she added quickly.

“Yes, child, I am. But I'm afraid my coughing was nothing more than poor acting.”

Daphne looked confused. The man in bed in front of her seemed too fragile to bring himself to lie about his health. His coughing fit, Daphne thought, was too in accordance with his physical state.

“Acting?” Daphne repeated.

“They wouldn't let me talk privately with you. Please, close the door.”

“Yes, sir,” Daphne said and quickly closed the door. She didn't know if it was the influence of his age, which she undoubtedly respected, or just a sense of guilt that left her feeling like she had to do everything to appease him; but whatever the reason was, Daphne gladly accepted to be manipulable in his presence.

“Lock the door,” he said.

“Is that really necessary, sir?”


Daphne, then, did what she was told. She was aware that when Mrs. Frank and Marie found themselves locked out, she would be in serious trouble.

“Sit down, please,” Mr. Frank said and Daphne obeyed him, returning to the chair Mrs. Frank had pulled to her. She had a good idea of the many paths where that conversation could go, and wanted to take none. In fact, at that very moment all she wanted was to run away from the inn, and felt a little stupid for entrapping herself like that.

After she sat down, Mr. Frank looked at her with a sad expression. Daphne didn't know whether he pitied her or simply showed concern after everything that had happened. The idea of being pitied made her feel a little bitter and impatient. She hated to be thought of as someone weak.

“Yes, Mr. Frank?”

“How may I repair the damage that was caused in your life?” He asked her, starting to get emotional.

Daphne was surprised to see him in that state. The only man she knew to openly show sadness had been her father. And, although she could see the physical resemblance, they could be hardly compared to each other. In fact, they were opposites. While Mr. Frank was all about stability and quietness, Abelard was more like an unpredictable volcano.

Daphne looked at him, confused.

“The damage that was caused in my life?” She asked, and rubbed her forehead. A slight headache was starting to make itself noticeable.

“Yes, Daphne, my girl, we've made you suffer so much,” he said, and a solitary tear went down the right side of his face. Daphne almost didn't notice it, but it suddenly reflected a sun beam and it was as if Mr. Frank suddenly had a star on his face.

Daphne observed it attentively, until the little star made a leap from his chin and landed on his chest, where it vanished.

“I don't understand,” she said, her heart already racing.

“I know everything that happened to you here. I know more than you might think I do. So, I understand you have very good reasons not to want to live here, but I beg you to return to my house.”

“Mr. Frank. . .”

Daphne, for a second, thought that Mr. Frank knew the truth. But, before she could apologize for the way she dealt with her problems with Tammy, it occurred to her that he could be also referring to Jane's lie. She stopped and stared at him, looking for some sign that could indicate precisely what he had in mind.

“Your father entrusted me the honor of taking care of you while you're here in Middleton. It saddens me to think that I failed.”

“But you didn't fail,” Daphne said.

“How is your book?” He suddenly asked.

Daphne blinked a few times, trying to reorganize her thoughts.

“My book?”


“Fine, I guess.”

“Were you able to write well here?”

“Yes,” Daphne lied.

“Were you able to write at Marie's?”

“Yes,” Daphne lied once again. All her homework assignments had been keeping her away from her book.

But, although she did her best at showing confidence, Mr. Frank continued to look very sad.

“Don't worry, I'm doing fine,” Daphne said in a last attempt to reassure him.

“You know, Daphne, I've made many mistakes in my life. Many. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time. I think I would have done everything differently. I'm glad to see, though, that you are on the right path.”

He sighed and distractedly observed a crow that had just landed on the other side of his window. The bird cried, which sounded a little frustrated, and beaked the window glass a few times.

“While it wants to get in, I want to get out,” Mr. Frank said with a wistful look.

Daphne frowned, a little surprised to hear him express his longing.

“How is life in Lavinia?” He asked her.

“In Lavinia?”

“Yes. Weren't you born there?”

“Oh, yes. Um, life is fine, I guess.”

“And you grew up in a house?”

“Yes. We live in a farm, actually. But we never try growing any crops, at least we haven't recently.”

“Oh, really? Why not?”

“My father doesn't trust strangers taking care of what belongs to him, but he doesn't have time to take care of the farm properly, so every month we try to take care of the grounds the best way we can on our own. But, other than that, it's just a house surrounded by green fields. A river crosses our property, too.”

Mr. Frank smiled.

“But why do you live in a farm?”

“Well, my father wanted to have a big family, so he thought that would be the best place to raise his kids.”

He looked surprised.

“So you have siblings?”

“Oh, yes, I do,” Daphne said, but was then interrupted as someone tried to open the door.

“Tobias? Daphne?” Mrs. Frank's voice echoed from the corridor. She tried to open the door once again, perhaps thinking it was just a little jammed.

Daphne looked alarmed from the door to Mr. Frank, but he simply raised a hand, as he had done to his wife and Marie, to keep her from opening it.

“You were saying. . ?”

“I —,”

And then Mrs. Frank knocked. She was starting to get impatient.

“Please, continue, you were talking about your siblings,” Mr. Frank said, ignoring his wife's attempts at getting in the room.

The girl felt nervous.

“My siblings?” Daphne mumbled. “I — I have two. . . Mr. Frank, the door!” She said, when Marie joined Mrs. Frank in the corridor.

“What is going on?” Marie's voice called out. “Daphne, open the door!”

“Mr. Frank, may I please open the door?”

“What are their names?” Mr. Frank asked anxiously, as if that was the most important question in the world.

“Kyle and Chris. Christopher. They are — they are twins.”

“They are twins!” Mr. Frank repeated, and suddenly burst into tears.

Afraid that he was getting too emotional, Daphne ran to the door and turned the key. Mrs. Frank and Marie darted into the room immediately, both holding what he had requested. They looked from Daphne to him, surprised, and ran to his bedside.

“What happened here?” Marie asked, looking over her shoulder at Daphne, as she grabbed Mr. Frank's hand to calm him.

“I — I don't know. He. . . He asked about my siblings, and then he started crying,” Daphne stuttered.

The worst that could happen, she thought, was that they thought she was bothering him.

“Did you know Abelard has two other kids?” He asked his wife, and started sobbing loudly.

“Mrs. Frank, I'm so sorry,” Daphne said, and rummaged in her mind for any good explanations for the situation she got herself into.

She was expecting Mrs. Frank to turn to her with a red face, and to tell her to leave and never show up again, but she simply looked at her and said it was all right. Mrs. Frank, then, murmured something to Marie, who immediately went to Daphne and started guiding her out of the room.

Daphne, whose legs were very stiff and her feet felt stuck to the ground, lost her balance when Marie tried to lead her by her shoulders, and almost fell. But Marie held her firmly, and said that Mr. Frank needed to be alone with his wife.

In the hallway, Daphne didn't know what to say. She covered her mouth with her hands as she paced, and felt like she was burning her lips a little, because her hands were cold as ice.

“At that age, people get emotional easily,” Marie said, but Daphne still felt guilty.

“Please, let's go back to The Sphinx!” Daphne begged.

“We can't, chérie. We can't just leave.”

“Then you stay and I'll go,” Daphne said, and turned on her heel to go, but Marie grabbed the back of her shirt.

“Daphne, wait just a little longer. It will be fine.”

She had to acquiesce, and silently stood by Marie, nervously rubbing her forehead.

“He faked all that coughing,” Daphne suddenly said, “and asked me to lock the door because he believed no one would let him talk with me privately. Now, can someone tell me why?”

“That's because he is sick and he knows everyone here are deeply concerned about his health.”

“No, Marie,” Daphne said, this time impatiently raising her voice, “that's not the reason. He said he knows more about my problems here than I could imagine. He said a few strange things, too. He asked about my family, and began to cry when I mentioned my brothers. I think there's something else going on here, after all he had no reason to react the way he did.”

Marie frowned, and seemed to consider Daphne's suspicions for a minute, but then she shook her head, and asked her to remember he was of a certain age when sickness always comes with a good dose of sensibility.

“Not to mention,” Marie added, “that Tammy left recently. The poor man is suffering that his granddaughter left.”

Daphne didn't want to be reminded of her. She felt responsible for Tammy having left.

“You don't understand,” Daphne said, ready to re-start her argumentation, but Mrs. Frank suddenly opened the door and looked at them with a mortified expression.

“I am really sorry,” she said with a quavering voice, “I don't know what got into him, but he is much calmer now.”

“We're glad to hear that,” Marie said.

Mrs. Frank looked at Daphne and hesitated a little before she said:

“He would like to talk with you again, Daphne. Don't worry, he's embarrassed that he cried in front of you, and he would like to apologize.”

But, at that point, Daphne had forgotten everything she had learned about politeness, and grabbed Marie's hand. Although she said nothing, it was clear to them that she would only go back in that room if she had someone to protect her at her side.

“Yes, Marie may come, too,” Mrs. Frank said encouragingly.

They went back to Mr. Frank's room. They walked to him, and waited until he started talking. He looked sad and tired, but did his best to explain with good humor that “sometimes old people can be very foolish.”

“We look at youth, and cry because we wish we were young again,” he said, though he didn't look like the type of person who would cry for his lost youth. But, although he was clearly lying, they accepted his apologies respectfully. There was nothing more rude than not to listen to an old man, so why not include his lies in that same rule?

From the moment she agreed to go back in his room, Daphne had been afraid that Mr. Frank would ask her again to return to the inn. At every moment he paused to take a deep breath, to drink some water to clear his throat, or to just try to find the best words to express his thoughts, Daphne felt that fear crept into her as she expected every pause to be followed by new pleas.

The tension was so great, that every time Mr. Frank looked at her, Daphne instinctively squeezed Marie's hand. The woman's poor hand was so tortured, that when she thought Daphne would end up breaking one of her bones, she desperately pulled it back from her grip. Mr. Frank, of course, didn't notice it. But, then, Daphne misunderstood Mr. Frank's repressed yawn – one of those when you don't yawn in front of someone to be polite – to be the recurrence of distressed thoughts, and grabbed Marie's hand back.

Despite her certainty that he would ask her to move back to the inn, Mr. Frank didn't. He apologized and then Mrs. Frank announced that it was time for him to take a nap. He looked very much surprised at that, but went along with it. He was visibly ashamed of the exhibition he made of himself minutes ago, and any excuse to be left alone would be welcome. Marie, then, freed herself once again from Daphne, and kissed his hands. He simply gave her a sheepish smile, and then waved Daphne goodbye, who waved back rather stiffly.

Leaving his room was like getting fresh air once again. When Daphne, Marie and Mrs. Frank walked down the steps, the girl almost felt like jumping all the way from the second to the first floor, and darting away.

When they reached the door, Mrs. Frank asked Daphne whether she needed any belonging left in her room as she decided whether to move back or not. Daphne opened her mouth to suggest that they should actually get everything she had left behind now that they had time available, but Marie gave her a stern look as if hoping she would not be too abrupt. Annoyed at the ordeal that her life had turned, she lied she actually needed a jacket she had left in her wardrobe.

Daphne sprinted upstairs. She still had her key, and walked in her room trying her best not to pay attention to it. She didn't want to look at her things, and feel guilty for not wanting to come back. All she was doing was trying to seem reasonable in her decision, otherwise the Franks would be offended. She reached for the first jacket she saw in her closet, and left as quick as possible.

But, as she walked down the corridor once again, she thought of Ben. The mess that had been that afternoon almost made her entirely forget that she needed – and wanted more than anything – to talk with him. She spun on her heel and stood in front of his door.

She very confidently raised a fist, but then realized how nervous she felt. Daphne smiled shyly, and after taking a deep breath, knocked twice. She waited and waited, but he didn't respond. Thinking that perhaps her knock had been too weak, she tried two loud ones. She waited, and a little noise nearby startled her.

“Oh, hello,” Daphne said when Jesse's door opened.

He looked surprised to see her.

“Hey,” he said, avoiding eye contact, and very quickly closed the door.

Daphne felt almost as if someone had just offended her. She didn't know for how long she stood staring at Jesse's door considering the many things she wanted to ask him. First, she thought about barging into his room and asking what was the problem. Then, she considered just politely knocking and inviting him for a walk, during which she would have told him that she was partially thankful that he had tried to defend her. And, finally, she realized that it was better to stay away from him after everything that had happened. It occurred to her that the boy felt guilty for hitting her accidentally as she tried to defend Caleb. Now that she thought of it, even her defending the enemy possibly sent out the wrong message to him.

She sighed, saddened by the loss of that ally. But, as many reputable authors had done before, she knew there is always a character who, for countless reasons, seems to stray away from the hero's side. Daphne felt a little disappointed, but told herself that losing Jesse was natural.

Convinced that Ben wasn't in his room, Daphne left. As she walked away, Caleb's door opened. He still was wearing his sunglasses.

“I need to talk with you,” he said, but Daphne pretended she wasn't listening and quickly walked past him without looking up.

He repeated he needed to talk with her, this time a little annoyed, and she ran away. Literally, as fast as she could, down the stairs.

Caleb went after her, but Daphne didn't look back. She was scared, but she was also tired of confrontations, and sick of being humiliated by him.

Although there was nothing athletic about her physique, she ran as fast as she could. She ran for her life, and jumped from the middle of the stairs, landing on the first floor like a cat. He must have noticed Marie's and Mrs. Frank's silhouettes on the other side of the door glass, because he abruptly stopped, and retreated. Daphne looked back, and was surprised to find out she was the only one in the living room. She smiled, relieved, happy that this time she had escaped.

The door suddenly opened and Marie and Mrs. Frank looked at her a little alarmed.

“Did you fall, dear?” Mrs. Frank asked, and looked at her arms and legs in search of any signs that she was injured.

They heard when she heavily landed on the floor.

“Um. . . No,” Daphne said, embarrassed.

Mrs. Frank said goodbye to them, and Marie and Daphne left. They were about to leave the garden, when they ran into Jane.

Daphne barely recognized her. Jane was coming back from school, and her uniform was too conservative for her vibrant personality. She was even wearing a tie, and nice clean shoes.

“Don't laugh at me,” Jane said dryly, sensing Daphne's thoughts.

“I won't,” Daphne quickly replied.

She had never seen her in her school uniform. Jane looked polite, but it was the sort of politeness that came from taming, rather than genuine good manners. But, behind that facade existed a girl ready to stick out her tongue and say the most outrageous things about the people she disliked.

Jane looked at her, and then looked at Marie. She gave them both her best look of suspicion. The one when she raised only one eyebrow, and then crossed her arms over her chest. Her eyes, then, wandered to the inn, and quickly went back to looking at them as she dwelt in deep thoughts.

Daphne and Marie didn't say a word. They thought it was safer to remain quiet, in case Jane was still mad at them.

Jane's eyes suddenly sparked, and her face brightened up when she smiled. She didn't say what her thoughts had been, but Daphne felt relieved she wouldn't have to deal with another problem that afternoon.

“Halloween is tomorrow,” Jane said, “and I expect both of you to meet me at eight in front of The Sphinx.”

Marie, however, was quick to say she wouldn't be going, which surprised Daphne. As far as she could remember, Marie had not refused to go to any of the parties Daphne knew she had been invited to.

In fact, Marie had gone to the mayor's surprise birthday party that his wife had organized, and then to the mayor's official birthday party held in the town hall by his co-workers. She had also been invited to the red & white ball on Middleton's anniversary. She had gone to the Farewell, Bicycles! party, held every year some time during mid-Fall to say goodbye to bicycling before the first snow caught cyclists off guard. Marie joined them, even though she didn't have a bicycle. But the truth was that people liked to have her in their social events.

She was fun, and laughed, and her presence made everyone's day happy, better.

Strangely, Jane didn't look surprised at all.

“I was sure you'd say no,” she said in a sullen manner.

“Why did you ask me, then?”

Daphne frowned, surprised that Marie suddenly didn't look like the Marie she knew, the confident Marie who had protected her from Caleb an hour ago.

“I have my hopes.”

Marie sighed and her lips formed a sheepish, almost sorrowful smile.

“The bookstore. More clients. Bills,” she mumbled, absent-minded. “I'll see you at home,” she told Daphne, and briskly strode out without looking back.

They continued looking at her until she turned left on the corner and vanished.

“I don't know why she's so upset,” Jane said, breaking the silence.

“Of course you know what bothered her,” she said, and blushed for sounding rude. She mentally blamed Caleb for her mood. Running away from him had left her feeling more bold than usual.

“Yes, I know. That was just an expression.”

Jane was silent again, and Daphne felt impatient.



“Aren't you going to tell me why Marie –,”

“It's because of her son,” Jane cut in.

“What do you mean?”

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Sometimes I think you know nothing about the world around you.”

Daphne frowned, and turned on her heel to leave. She would endure nothing more from the Franks. Jane, however, ran up to Daphne and outstretched her arms to stop her.

“Oh, come on, don't be offended. It was just nonsense I thought of and wanted to see if it sounded cool. I didn't mean to upset you,” she said with a smile, and jumped in front of Daphne until she forgave her.

Daphne thought there was nothing more painful than to see a teenager wearing a tie and jumping around like that. That image looked too wrong.

“All right, go ahead,” Daphne said and crossed her arms.

Jane stopped being silly, and suddenly looked very grave.

“Émile left Middleton on Halloween, two years ago.”

“Oh, so –,”

“So she doesn't celebrate Halloween. She looks tough, but on Halloween you can really tell Marie still suffers a lot because he isn't with her.”

“That is awful,” Daphne said, more to herself than to Jane, and felt sad as she pictured Marie going home on her own after thinking of her son.

“Yes. Though, only for her. Émile had been ready to leave since way before that day.”

“Didn't he like to live here?”

“Well, it's not like Middleton is the most likable town, right?” She said, and then laughed.

Daphne, however, didn't feel like joining her laughter. So, she simply managed to come up with an awkward smile.

“It's not like he hated Middleton,” Jane added quickly. “He often volunteered. He taught people, mostly kids, how to play the guitar. He taught them at the inn, in fact. I wish you had met him. We sat around him in the living room to learn how to play a few songs, though most of us were there just to listen to him play.”

Jane was very excited as she talked about Émile, but although she sometimes raised her voice in excitement and gesticulated too much, Daphne thought it was actually very relaxing to listen to her describing him.

Émile was a mysterious figure she only knew from the bits of information she got here and there. Although Marie liked to talk about him, Daphne was always under the impression that she kept a lot to herself, a whole world of information that her motherly instincts were not always willing to share with others, perhaps in order to protect his memory from people's thoughts. Daphne always regarded Émile as an iconic figure, perfect in his mysteriousness. She couldn't help feeling happy and curious when she heard stories about him.

“Why did he leave?”

Jane looked away as she thought, and then looked back at Daphne with a serious countenance.

“It is unclear. Émile was always the type of person who wanted adventure in his life, but up until the day he left, he had never done anything adventurous. I overheard him a few times telling my sister that he wanted to go to France; but, since he moved with Marie to the U.S., he was never able to go back.”

“Tammy?” Daphne asked, surprised.

Jane nodded looking a little annoyed.

“Yes. They were good friends. Best friends, actually, since they were little.”

Daphne didn't know why, but it was hard to picture Émile and Tammy together. They were not exactly opposites. Perhaps, actually, they had a lot in common in terms of their mutual interest in the arts. But, in Daphne's head, they occupied very distinct places. While in her mind she had placed Émile where everything that was likable and lovely was, Tammy had been locked in a box that should never be opened.

She then thought of a painting she had seen in the living room at the Franks' Inn. It was the painting of a guitar player surrounded by listeners, signed by Tammy. That had to be him. A strange thought then crossed her mind, and she couldn't help feeling jealousy.

“Were they –?”

“No. Never,” Jane said, quickly, sensing her thought. “Tammy wanted to, because she always wants everything. She wants everyone's attention. But I know for a fact that he never wanted to be more than friends.”

Daphne, however, was uncertain.

“If they were close friends, it would be natural for them to start having feelings for each other.”

“Émile is not that type of guy. He never got confused, and knew how to separate his feelings,” she said confidently. “I asked him once. More than once, actually, just to make sure. Guess what he told me.”


“He told me he would never date a girl from Middleton, because for him all girls here were his sisters.”

“I guess that was a clever thing to say,” Daphne said with a smile. “But I still don't see why he left. I always hear so many good things about him, and I get the impression he liked everyone and everyone liked him. Why would he leave his mother and friends, then?”

“He surprised us. And, at the same time, I'd say he didn't. He caught everyone off guard when he left, because he didn't say goodbye. But Émile was never secretive about his desire to see the world, so leaving us was just a matter of time.”

“How did Marie take that at the time?”

“She left Middleton.”

Daphne was speechless.

“She did. She left after him. She was a little crazy at that point, I remember. She came back after some time, looking sane again.”

“What do you mean?” Daphne asked, alarmed.

“Not crazy, crazy. Not mentally crazy, I mean. Just. . . I don't know, out of character, always defensive and a little aggressive when we tried speaking with her. She wasn't expecting him to leave like that, so it was hard for her to understand that it wasn't her fault that he had left. We believe she went looking for him, because she wasn't in town for two weeks after he left. The Sphinx stayed closed during that time. When she came back, she behaved like nothing had happened, except that she stopped visiting us at the inn. She used to come here regularly since Émile was little, because of his friendship with Tammy, but then she started avoiding us. That's understandable, I guess. I wouldn't want to go to a place that reminded me of my lost son.”

“He's not lost,” Daphne said without thinking.

“Of course he is. Since he left, he never returned to visit her, to visit us. Never sent a letter, nothing. I don't think he is coming back ever again, and the truth is that I don't blame him for that.”

Daphne then realized that Jane didn't know about the letters Émile sent to his mom. She was surprised, and a little thrilled at the same time. If Jane didn't know about those messages, then it was very likely that nobody knew about them. Daphne felt proud Marie had entrusted only to her what now seemed to be a precious information about Émile's fate.

“I need to go,” Daphne said, eager to go meet with Apollo.

“Eight o'clock. Tomorrow, in front of The Sphinx!” Jane cried as Daphne darted away down the street.

Daphne thought of turning back to let her know that she didn't intend to go to the Halloween celebrations, but instead she heard herself shouting “All right!” back.

“We need to do something about Marie and Ben,” Daphne said, anxious.

Apollo, up on his hot air balloon, waved at her. He was in his more pacifist form, what left Daphne feeling more confident.

“I thought you had forgotten me,” he said, and jumped out of the balloon's basket when it touched the ground.

“Why do you say that? We have a deal, don't we?”

“Yes, we do. But it's been a while since you needed me,” he said in a an offended tone of voice, and was then alarmed to see that Daphne didn't have her wings anymore. “What happened to your wings?”

Daphne instinctively touched her back, from where a pair of angelic wings protruded not too long ago. “I don't know. When I woke up the day after our adventure, they were gone.”

“And how about the clouds?” He added, even more alarmed.

“What clouds?”

“The clouds that appear over your head and other people's heads when they're upset.”

“They vanished, too,” Daphne said, calmly.

“Since when?” He asked, grabbing her hands so abruptly that she was startled.

“I don't remember. I don't know, really.”


Taken by a sudden pain in his chest, Apollo stumbled away from Daphne and ungraciously dropped in the lake like a log.

She had never seen him behave like that, and threw herself in the water to help him. It was freezing cold. She wasn't surprised the lake still had not frozen.

Before she could reach him, though, he reemerged floating, his eyes fixed in the sky with a dazed expression.

“Are you all right?” She asked, brushing hair away from his face. “Are you hurting?”

He looked at her, and the sadness in his face was pitiful as he trembled from sorrow and shivered from coldness.

“Apollo?” She tried again, and he so violently burst into tears that Daphne jumped back, startled.

She tried reaching for him to soothe his pain, but it was too late. Convulsively crying, Apollo sank. She cried out his name, afraid that he was drowning, and swam looking for him, but he was gone.

Her heart was beating fast when she reemerged on the lake's surface. Had Apollo drowned? Could he drown? She didn't know. He probably could. He was Creativity, after all. The same way he could conjure up a majestic, red hot air balloon in a matter of seconds, he also could orchestrate his own death, if he thought dying was suitable.

“Apollo, Apollo!” Daphne cried a few more times in desperation, and once again tried to find him in the bottom of the lake. She was vigorously swimming when she hit what felt like an invisible wall. Or, rather, when an invisible wall hit her, full force, and catapulted her out of the lake.

When Daphne's back hit the ground, she felt like all air in her lungs had escaped her. She stayed motionless, looking up at the sky, trying to breathe and understand what had just happened to her.

“How dare you, Daphne Chase?” She heard Caleb's angry voice yell from the other side of the lake. “How dare you forget me and dispose of everything I've given you?”

She raised her head, surprised. “Apollo?” She asked, feebly trying to sit up.

He wasn't the sweet Apollo she liked better anymore. There, standing by the lake, she saw mischievous, bloodthirsty Apollo with his long, dark hair, aquiline nose, supporting his body weight on his red cane.

“How dare you?” He repeated, this time screaming in anger, and with a swing of his cane Daphne was sent flying against a tree.

The pain was unbearable when she hit the tree trunk and fell. Holding her breath, she touched her ribcage afraid she had broken a rib.

“Oh my Gosh,” she said under her breath, startled, when Apollo unexpectedly appeared in front of her and grabbed her face, his long, sharp fingernails burying in her skin.

“You are ungrateful,” he said between his teeth, his nose just a few inches from hers.

“I – I don't know why you're doing this,” she said with difficulty, for he still was clutching her jaw.

“Oh, you don't know?” He asked in a mocking tone, and shoved her against the tree trunk. When Daphne hit it, she felt that her body turned strangely stiff. She wanted to run away from him, but couldn't. Her legs felt tightly tied close together.

Daphne looked down to assess what injure had caused her body to feel petrified from her waist down, and panicked. The tree her back hit against had engulfed her feet, legs, all the way up to her waist and parts of her ribcage. It had not only engulfed her, but it was like she was now part of it, half of her body turned into tree bark.

“What have you done to me?” Daphne yelled, desperately hitting her mutated body. Tears started to stream down her face when she realized that whatever she did would not save her.

“Ah, that's how I like it,” he said, collecting one of her tears with a long, cold finger and humidifying his lips with it. “You are Melancholia. This new you that doesn't cry offend me. What's gone into you, Daphne? What have you done to those lovely clouds and the wings? Where's my angel?”

Daphne had trouble breathing, and fear chocked her words, but she couldn't just passively wait as he obliterated her unjustly.

“I – I've t-told you. T-they're gone.”

He raised an eyebrow in suspicion.

“They can't just be gone. You got rid of them. You are walking away from our deal and forgetting everything I've taught you.”

“You what? You taught me nothing,” she said, losing her temper. “All I hear from you are promises that with a deal, my life will change forever, I'll write my book and my name will be remembered for it, not for that old thing I published in the past. So far I saw nothing of that!”

His face distorted in anger. He turned his back to her, offended, and paced to calm himself. When he faced her again, he looked even more choleric.

“Writers truly are ungrateful little things. You all have given me nothing but headaches. Well, all but sweet Emily,” he said, though more to himself, and slowly approached Daphne with eyes that would decimate her with sparks of wrath any time soon. “Do you really think I've taught you nothing? I've been close to you, watching your thoughts since you were ready for me, feeding your imagination so you could be who you are today. I opened your mind to an entire world of possibilities, and you say I've taught you nothing? My very presence gives your writing life, you foolish girl.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” Daphne sobbed. “I came looking for you.”

“To help you with your friends?” He said in mockery, imitating her voice. “You have no idea what you're doing, do you? You need seclusion to write, you idiot. You need to be alone. Last time, what do you think was all that we did to Tammy Molina?”

“I don't know,” Daphne said with a weak voice.

“That was writing,” Apollo yelled in her face, and she flinched, renewing her sobs. “Writing that is so good it comes to life. Writing under my guidance. Now, her leaving was my doing, of course. I did, thank you very much. Influencing her to go after her husband was the only way to get that stubborn girl out of Middleton. Her presence was bothering you too much.”

Daphne bitterly cried, afraid that she had played with Tammy's destiny by allowing Apollo in their problems, and now that she wasn't in Ben's life, he had no more reason to stay in Middleton.

“Don't underestimate my power,” he said, touching her chin. “And don't underestimate yours. You're a writer, remember? But you need to be alone to write.”

“That can't be true,” Daphne sobbed. “I thought. . . I thought you were just trying to help me cope with my problems. That's why I came here today. I wanted to be strong and find ways to help Ben and Marie be happy again, but I didn't know what to say to them.”

“What? You thought that I'm here to set up a stage for you to learn how to behave socially?” He asked, and burst into laughter. “If you are so into role-playing, join the theater or. . . read a book.”

“Bring Tammy back!” She yelled at him.

“No. You must stay away from her. At least for now. Or. . . forever, I suppose. She's way too complicated. She'll be back only if I see anything good in that.”

“Please, bring her back,” Daphne sobbed. “Benjamin will leave Middleton if she's not back with him.”

“You're strange, Daphne Chase,” he said, and with a swing of his cane her body went back to normal. Her legs were numb, and Daphne fell in front of him unable to support her own weight. “You're trying so hard to fit in with them, you're losing your abilities. You must be alone to regain your powers. Only when you're alone, I'll give you that book I promised. Now, for making me waste my time and betraying me, you shall pay.”

Daphne looked up at him, alarmed. His cane was shining under the sun, and she had terrible thoughts of him striking her to death with it.

Reading her thoughts, he looked at it and then back at her with a surprised look. “Do you really think I'd do that to you? No, no, dear, sweet Daphne, I wouldn't hurt you. Not deliberately. However,” he paused, and then said with a childish voice, “you know you have to learn a lesson or two from me before we get back to business, don't you? You were a bad girl. Bad, ungrateful child. You must lose the ones you care for to learn how to value me more. You better run to say goodbye to Marie and Ben, while you have them around.”

When Daphne arrived at The Sphinx, she went straight upstairs in search of Marie, who wasn't working downstairs. In fact, Marie lately had neglected her bookstore a little. There were times, and Daphne blamed herself for that, she had not even opened it. Sadly, customers were more and more scarce.

Her heart sank when she saw her. Marie was in tears.

Daphne ran to her. In her sadness, she had not noticed that Daphne had arrived and was startled.

“Please, don't cry,” Daphne said, and flung her arms around her.

“I'm fine, chérie. Don't worry. I'm fine,” Marie said in a quavering voice that didn't convince Daphne.

She gently tried to release herself from that anxious hug, but Daphne would not let go of her.

“I'm sorry, I'm so sorry you had to go to the inn today. Next time, I'll go on my own. And I'll help you more with The Sphinx. I'm sorry I forgot to lock the door last time, but I promise from now on you won't feel like you're alone taking care of everything here. Don't let these things negatively influence you, Marie.”

And Daphne went on apologizing for everything she felt she could have contributed to cause more pain in Marie's already difficult life. She also made countless promises to be a good roommate, and did her best to explain that although it looked like she had bad records as a roommate, she knew how to prove that great part of the problems she got herself into had not entirely been her fault.

She talked quickly, thought after thought, almost as if that was her last chance to make her apologies. She felt desperate to think that Apollo's influence on her would start any time soon, and wanted Marie to hold on to good thoughts to keep her from being an easy prey to him.

“I think you are a good roommate,” Marie said, “and, despite the problems we had, I actually liked very much to go to the inn today. I'll go with you next time.”

Daphne released her and stepped back to see her eyes. Marie took the opportunity to quickly wipe them with the back of her hands.

“Really?” Daphne asked, surprised. If Marie was making plans for the future that included her, that had to be a good sign.

“Yes,” Marie said genuinely. “I like Tobias and Margaret very much, and the girls too. I had a chance to talk with Margaret about Tammy. She's inconsolable, poor woman! That girl should not have left like that.”

“Jane left you upset,” Daphne said, quickly changing the subject.

“I don't like Halloween,” Marie said, and looked uneasy.

Daphne forbore asking why. She knew the reason from Jane, and that was enough. She didn't want to pressure her friend even more.

Marie was holding a piece of paper. It was already very crumpled as she nervously squeezed and twisted her own hands and fingers in that unconscious manner of when she was very distressed.

“It's from Émile,” she said, and tried to smile, though only managed to make a face. “Please, don't mention with anyone you saw this,” she asked and put the letter in a box in her closet.

Daphne was almost certain that had been Émile's farewell letter, otherwise Marie wouldn't be so melancholy. She could clearly picture her coming home and torturing herself his farewell letter to her and to life in Middleton, after Jane reminded her Émile had left on Halloween.

“I won't. And. . . don't be sad. I know you'll see him again.”

Marie turned to her and her eyes glistened as if she was about to cry again.

“If you're wondering, I was crying because I miss him. But I am fine now. I left because Jane can be very stubborn sometimes, and I have a lot to do here this afternoon,” she said confidently.

“But, Marie –,” Daphne said. She wanted to ask her if there was anything she could do to help, but Marie interrupted her.

“If I remember correctly, you also have your paper to finish.”

Daphne checked her watch, and a rush of adrenaline went through her body. It was almost 4:00, and her paper was due at 5:00. Although she wanted to talk with Marie, she had to rush downstairs to write.

After dinner, Daphne sat with Marie outside. Her friend had invited her to drink tea in front of The Sphinx. It was very cold, and they shivered in their beach chairs, but it was nice to be outdoors and to watch the passers-by going to parties. Marie looked uncomfortable, and Daphne instinctively knew it wasn't because she was cold.

Watching her friend nervously sip her tea made Daphne feel guilty. Despite the eventful afternoon she had had, Daphne was starting to actually feel more relaxed. She had finished her paper, and from now on could focus simply on taking care of Marie. And Ben, too, as soon as she got a chance to go see him.

“You know, my dear girl, I must give you one last advice before we go to bed,” Marie said, finally breaking the silence. “I think I've found a way to help you live forever.”

“You did?” Daphne asked, a little surprised at Marie's word choice. The thought of Apollo using her sent shiver down her spine.

“Yes. I must tell you, because I want you to be happy.”

Daphne looked in Marie's eyes. They were exceptionally bright that night, and when she spoke they lit up even more.

“The secret to immortality is the following: put yourself in your characters' shoes. Don't be afraid to put your thoughts in their head, don't restrain yourself from speaking your mind through them. Because when your body perish, you will continue speaking, breathing, thinking and inspiring many other generations to come with their help. Characters are mediators of life. Don't forget that.”

“I won't.”

“All right, that's all I can take of Halloween,” Marie said, and after drinking her last sip of tea, gave Daphne a goodnight kiss on her forehead and stood up. “Don't forget to lock the door when you come in.”

When Marie's lips touched her forehead, Daphne felt an overwhelming rush of emotions going through her body. She felt happy to have her as friend and guardian, but at the same time she felt weirdly melancholy.

“Goodnight, mom,” Daphne muttered to herself a few minutes after Marie was already gone.

Chapter 14
Abstract chapter design

Daphne left Marie's apartment feeling a little strange. Apollo was nowhere, but the memory of his threat left her uneasy for leaving her friend's side. There was, however, also Ben to protect, which she couldn't do from the bookstore.

The problem, however, was that she didn't know what to say to make him stronger against Apollo's influence. Going to the town's Halloween party with Jane was the only good excuse she could come up with to approach him after so many days estranged.

She needed to keep him in Middleton at all costs. She had misjudged him, but now wanted him back. She thought he was a good friend, when she ignored that attempted kiss, and had decided to comply with the natural course of things that from the very beginning screamed that Benjamin Wallace and Daphne Chase should be together. Together. . . somehow.

Her mouth fell open when she stepped out of the bookstore. Not even the small painted Sphinx's laughter distracted her this time. After everything that happened, that disconcerting phenomenon had been the last bit of magic, if that was the right word, that had remained in her world of creative reverie. The clouds and her wings were still gone.

Many lights covered the facades of houses and establishments. Everything, from sidewalks to trees, from trees to chimneys, was covered with small purple, blue, orange and red lights. Lights here and there also formed the silhouette of pumpkins that smiled in that creepily enticing manner. And ropes – even ropes! – were tied from lamppost to lamppost, from them hanging little bats and skulls that spun with outstretched arms. It was magnificent.

Everything had a little bit of Halloween. Except for The Sphinx.

Daphne thought of going back inside to ask Marie to come downstairs. She thought that all those lights, such pretty lights, would warm her friend's heart despite her dislike of the date. She had just opened the door, when a figure glided to her without her noticing and touched her shoulder.

She gasped, her hands instinctively covering her mouth.

Standing in front of her, the figure was wearing a very loose, black tunic over black pants, and a dark hood and gloves too. His. . . or her face, for Daphne couldn't tell who she was dealing with, was well hidden behind a white mask that had a fixed sad expression, with the sides of the mouth pointing down in a very dramatic manner. It was creepy. But, strangely, very endearing at the same time.

“Jane?” Daphne asked, although part of her knew that person couldn't be Jane.

Her instinct was then confirmed when she saw the girl was coming down the street dressed as a zombie ladybug.

The masked figure turned to see what Daphne was looking at, and darted away.

Daphne watched him running away, his flowing robes making him look like a shadow. She couldn't help thinking of Apollo, and shuddered.

“Who was that?” Jane asked.

“I don't know,” Daphne said, and both girls stood looking at him until he disappeared.

“That is so like Émile,” Jane said, breaking the silence.

“Really?” Daphne asked, starting to feel inexplicably excited.

“Yes. He liked masks, too.”

Daphne looked at the corner where the stranger had turned, even though she knew he wouldn't be there. It was extraordinary to think that he could have been Émile lurking around.

“You're smiling,” Jane said, though not in her usual mocking manner, and Daphne touched her own lips as if in disbelief. If Jane had not pointed it out, Daphne wouldn't haven known she had such large, silly smile.

“Oh, yes,” she said, blushing.

“You don't have to be embarrassed. It's impossible not to fall for Émile, even if you've never met him. Even if you already love someone else.”

Daphne didn't know what to say. And, sensing her awkwardness, Jane changed the subject.

“Your dress is very beautiful, but I still am not sure who you are supposed to be.”

“Oh, I'm Marie Antoinette,” Daphne said with a smile, and made an aristocrat pose. “Marie has many dresses like this one, did you know that? She let me borrow it. We just couldn't do my hair in Marie's style. I mean Marie Antoinette's, just to be clear. My hair is naturally very heavy, and this was the highest we could get my hair to stay up.”

“It looks good,” Jane said, amused by Daphne's enthusiasm. “So you'll be a brunette Marie Antoinette with glasses.”

But Daphne wasn't listening to Jane anymore. Thinking of Marie left her feeling sad again. Jane noticed the change in Daphne's countenance, and her own expression went from happy to concerned.

“What is it that's worrying you?” Jane asked.

“I think I should stay. Marie didn't seem well today.”

“Is she sick?”

“No. Just sad.”

“Because it's Halloween.”

And Apollo could be working his magic to steal her from me.

“Yes, I know. I think she needs me.”

“Marie can take care of herself. Daphne, really, she'll be fine. If it is inevitable for her to feel down on Halloween, no matter what you do today will make her feel better. Leave her alone. I know you're only trying to help, but at least let her deal with her ghosts in privacy.”

Daphne remembered when she found Marie crying in the apartment when she returned from the woods. Although she had been open about missing her son, it was clear that she was hiding something. Her friend had not looked exactly bothered by her presence, but it was clear she was uncomfortable around her.

“Okay, I'll go with you. But I'd rather come back early. I don't want her to feel abandoned and. . . vulnerable.”

And the two girls set off to the Halloween festivities.

In Lavinia, the houses and downtown area were decorated for Halloween early in the month, often in the first week of October. The decoration had the simplicity of those who, although not very enthusiastic about it, didn't want the date to go unnoticed. There was always a pumpkin here and there. Or a visibly old banner that said Happy Halloween. And, of course, parents with bored expressions, monotonously buying the cheapest and worst quality bags of candy, just in case a rare trick-or-treater reached their door.

Middleton, however, until October 30th had done nothing to celebrate the date, until it suddenly became the land of Halloween on the 31st. It was ostentatious, considering how much those people probably had spent on decoration they would use just once a year.

“Halloween is our obsession,” Jane said, after a rain of silver glitter startled them. The girls looked up in surprise and found a disheveled witch on the roof of a nearby house aiming at people passing by and throwing glitter at them just for fun.

“Indeed,” Daphne said, getting rid of the glitter in her hair and clothes. “But why is everything like this just today? I don't remember seeing any decoration at all this week.”

“Because Halloween is today and today only. Halloween isn't Carnival to be celebrated for a whole month,” Jane said in a matter of fact tone.

They continued walking, but when they were near College Avenue, Jane hurried her. She grabbed Daphne's wrist and pulled her down the street.

Daphne had no idea what was it that Jane so eagerly wanted to see, but nonetheless she ran, despite her difficulty in balancing herself on high heels. The truth was that those shoes were hurting her feet, but she decided to hide the pain.

They entered College Avenue, which was already crowded with people going up and down the sidewalks, and stopped in front of a store that specialized in various kinds of popcorn, cotton candy and other treats. Attracted by that delightful sweet aroma, Daphne glanced over her shoulder to read the name of the store. Circus World.

On another occasion, she would not have seen anything special there. How many times had she walked by it, going to or coming from school, with no reason in particular to turn her head, even briefly, to check what they sold there.

But that night the red neon lights attracted her and enchanted her eyes. It was almost as if they had set up that shop as part of the Halloween decoration.

She peered from the window, and noticed that the people there – young couples, probably McAdams students – were bright red. They looked happy holding hands, other times pointing at jars on the shelves behind the counter. The salesman reached for their treats, and the three couples choreographically tried them with the same dazed expression.

Daphne then realized she was bright red too. In fact, her dress, her hair and skin glowed the darkest scarlet hue. She outstretched her arms and looked at them surprised. Her thoughts wandered, and she couldn't stop hoping she would find Ben soon.

She raised her head and scanned the crowds walking by her, a sea of people dressed in costumes. It was impossible to find someone there. It felt as if the whole country had decided to visit Middleton that evening.

Why had he not tried contacting her again? They would be together by now, if he still liked her as much as she liked him now. She sighed, and felt lonely and melancholy. Her back ached. Maybe my wings are growing again. If they did, perhaps Apollo wouldn't be so upset.

Daphne looked back at Circus World and felt a sudden urge to run into the store and eat all they had to offer. Eat all the food, before the couples there did. Bags and more bags of caramels, cookies, all the salty and sweet popcorn. She wouldn't wait for the lollipops to melt in her mouth. Instead, she would chew them, even if that meant hurting her teeth. And then she would grab all the colorful cotton candy, and with sticky hands touch her eyes and mouth, and seal them with sugar so she would neither see nor taste anything ever again.

Jane's shrieks brought Daphne back to reality.

“Oh, they're here!” She said, grabbing Daphne's arms and jumping in excitement.

“Who's here?” Daphne asked, and craned her neck to get a better view.

Jane didn't have to explain. Daphne's mouth fell open when she saw herds of giants emerging from east and west, making their way among half scared, half astounded people, who began running to the sidewalks without losing sight of them.

When everyone cleared the way for them, Daphne was then able to better see their details. They were giant dolls almost ten feet high, their hair long and shaggy, and their features and the vests they wore varied, but had an overall barbaric aspect.

“Let me explain how they work –,” Jane said.

“Please, don't,” Daphne cut in. “I'd rather not know.”

Jane smiled.

“All right, I won't spoil the magic. Those are the giants of the northern and southern mountains. Do you see the red and blue scarves tied around their arms? They respectively represent north and south.”

Daphne noticed that the group on the west had red scarves, and the giants on the east had the blue ones.

“Why are they here?”

“They fight on Halloween. Their battle marks the beginning of the festivities.”

That had to be the strangest way of celebrating Halloween. Nonetheless, it was fantastic.

People watching seemed nervous and excited, and murmured among themselves. Others who were closer to Daphne and Jane were betting on each group they thought would win.

“Hold on a second. Did you just say they fight?”

Jane raised her eyebrows and looked at Daphne as if she didn't believe the girl had just asked her such question.

“So you've never heard of the battle of the Middleton giants?” She asked in a whisper, worried that others nearby would overhear.


“I really don't understand how they kept you without information all this time. . .”


Jane waved her arms for Daphne to forget what she had just said. “I meant the Internet, newspapers, or whatever is your source of information about the world. Anyway, our Halloween party is the only reason why students come to McAdams at all. If you've never heard of the treasure hunt, the battle of the giants, then I don't know why you're here.”

“I came here to write,” Daphne said, and hoped that Jane would understand her, but the girl shook her head.

Daphne blushed, and decided not to say anything else. She was tired of always being judged as some awkward, nerdy girl obsessed with her book.

The deafening sound of blowing horns filled the environment and pulled her back from her thoughts. Everyone immediately stepped back, and so did Daphne.

Then there was silence.

Daphne looked from right to left, eager to see what was going to happen. The giants remained still. She heard the horns again, and the people watching held their breath. The giants screamed at the top of their lungs, and both groups darted toward one another, answering the call to battle.

Despite their height and how heavy they probably were, the giants ran with no apparent difficulty, chest bumping their adversaries with all strength they had. When the first giants started falling, the people watching began to cry with joy, raising their fists in the air and jumping excitedly. Their hysteria was so loud that Daphne needed to cover her ears with her hands to muffle the noise.

Two giants pushing each other in front of her lost their balance. Jane, luckily, noticed what was about to happen, and quickly pulled Daphne to the side, closely avoiding getting squashed by them, who fell and continued scuffling. Both girls screamed, and the people around them did too.

Everywhere, other giants were falling way too close to the spectators as well, who pushed and pulled one another, dodging danger with the little agility that staying packed together in crowds allowed them. However, despite such festival of brutality and the many risks everyone were exposed to, nothing stopped their happiness. Every time a giant fell, whether it was in the middle of the street or too close someone's foot, it was reason for more enthusiasm.

Daphne, on the other hand, felt that she was trembling too much to enjoy herself that night. She was ready to leave, if it weren't for her mission to find Ben. . . and, of course, if it weren't for her disobedient, stiff legs that refused to move one mere inch.

She saw a northern giant fall and the southern one who had pushed him, not satisfied, started kicking his head until it broke away from the body and rolled over to the side. Daphne held her breath in anticipation to see spurts of blood spreading over the asphalt, but that didn't happen.

Feeling dizzy, and relieved, she reminded herself that those were just wooden dolls.

People who were paying attention to those two fighting, cheered wildly. Even the ones who were rooting for northern giants.

Refusing to continue watching, Daphne shut her eyes very tight. For the next minutes, the cries of the audience and the noise the giants made when they fell invaded her ears. Occasionally, the crowd pushed her when a giant came too dangerously close, and she let herself go with that human wave.

And then, after much shoving, there was silence. It was as if, suddenly, everyone had left College Avenue. It was as if they had never showed up at all that evening.

Daphne was afraid to open her eyes and find herself alone. She was afraid that during all those weeks she had been the only person in Middleton, perhaps the only person on Earth. Her back ached. She was certain her wings were indeed growing, cutting through her flesh.

Her heart was beating fast. Strangely, fear and joy mingled within her, and the result was a nauseating feeling. Solitude always felt like the best of gifts, and so she rejoiced at being the only living being there. But, at the same time, being completely alone stole from her any sign of humanity that made her Daphne. Without other people, she was just flesh and bones and blood, an object with no emotional references, with an empty conscience.

Tears began to stream down the sides of her face, when she heard the first notes of Heitor Villa-Lobos' 5th Bachiana. The song was at first playing timidly, but got gradually louder. And then it wasn't just Villa-Lobos playing, but Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Liszt and so many other composers her father loved, all melodies mixed and entangled, weaving together the meanings of many old family memories.

Daphne sighed, relieved. Those songs were proof that whatever happened to her, wherever she ended up, she would always be herself.

She finally opened her eyes when she heard the horns and shouts of joy.

“It was incredible, wasn't it?” Jane asked, jumping up and down in celebration like everyone else did. She had not noticed that Daphne had kept her eyes closed through great part of the battle.

“Yes,” Daphne said, mentally saying goodbye to the songs, which were lower and lower, until she could hear them no more.

A handful of giants with blue scarves tied around their arms were standing, and around them a sea of giants lay on the ground. The southern giants had won.

The distant sound of a band playing got people running, excitedly darting toward the source of music. Some of them were singing and others danced already disinterested in the barbarity they had just watched and applauded with vigor. It was extraordinary to see their mutability.

Jane grabbed Daphne's right wrist to pull her along, but Daphne managed to stay stuck to the ground.

“Wait,” Daphne said.

“What is it? The battle is over. All the northern giants are on the ground. When a giant falls, he's not allowed to stand up again. He's dead. That's the rule.”

“I want to know if they're fine.”

Jane frowned. She looked from Daphne to the giants and then back at Daphne. Both girls, judging by how fast people walked away, would soon be the only people left watching the giants.

“You know, that's not what we're supposed to be doing. No one stays behind after the battle is over. See, the band has already begun to play,” Jane said, impatiently.

Daphne was annoyed, but tried to keep a straight face.

They waited, and their wait wasn't long. Daphne trembled slightly when the men began to leave the dolls, freeing themselves from the cloth that made the giants' pants. During the battle, they balanced the trunk of the dolls on the head, and now got up one by one, looking half delighted, half confused.

“Come on, Daphne, let's go,” Jane said, averting her eyes from the men.

But Daphne was too numb to ask her to wait a little longer. She was hypnotized watching the men rising from the giants – the sons of barbaric, warrior gods, born fully mature like Zeus' Aphrodite – stretching, awakening dormant muscles.

Many of them assessed their arms, legs and ankles carefully looking for wounds. There was even a group helping a young man with a bloody cut under his left knee to get up.

“Let's go,” Jane begged, this time pulling Daphne's arm vigorously when she saw the injured guy.

Daphne, however, felt she shouldn't leave. At least not yet.

The answer to that feeling came faster than she had expected. While the group was helping him, one of them noticed a man laughing not too far away, and without hesitation ran to punch him.

“You had no reason to break the head of my son's giant.” He yelled, held by other men.

The man he punched, thought, simply put a mocking smile on his lips and defiantly crossed his arms over his puffed up chest.

Offended, the parent pushed away those who held him and in a fraction of seconds was again punching his son's aggressor amid encouraging cries.

Daphne would have stayed there to see the result of their fight, but Jane was too horrified to bear another minute there. “Those men are beasts,” she said in a high pitch. “Please, please, let's not stay here!”

“All right, let's go,” Daphne finally acquiesced, and they left the men to settle their problems on their own.

As they strode down College Avenue toward the stage where the band was playing, Jane spotted a group of school friends. Watching them jump and scream in excitement, hugging each other as if that was the first time they met after many years apart, reminded Daphne that Jane still was a teenager.

Jane Frank always stuck with people much older than her, which stained her youth here and there with signs of premature maturity.

Daphne was introduced to them, who greeted her with bright eyes and naïve smiles. Some even hugged her and kissed her cheeks, even though they weren't friends. Blushing, Daphne realized she had already forgotten everything about teenagers' stubborn certainty, or should one call it hope, that everything and everyone in the world were good and harmless.

Although she admired their positive ideology, she didn't want to be with them. Even though she wasn't much older than those people, life with Abelard had wrinkled her soul.

She didn't want to be the one with a gray mood around them. The one who knew that life would not be the sea of roses they aimed for. So, to avoid spoiling their fun, and to go looking for Ben, she ran away on the first moment they were distracted.

Daphne knew they wouldn't miss her any time soon. And when they did, they would content themselves with thinking that although she was lost, in that crowd of happy people she could only be fine, either partying alone or with new friends.

Jane, perhaps, would get a little mad at her, but Daphne hoped she would be less offended the next day, when she saw that her and Ben finally were on good terms.

So, she went looking for him, although she didn't know where to find him or what to say once they met. It had been many days since the incident at the inn, and she wanted to convince him that he should stay in Middleton despite everything that had happened.

She went through the crowd, dodging people with a wide-eyed expression that showed how vulnerable she felt around them. It was difficult to make her way on College Avenue without being occasionally pushed by groups of friends trying their best to stay together or by people distractedly dancing. But she was so intent on finding him, that she barely noticed that not only her back ached, now her ankles showed signs of inexperience in walking on heels.

Although she desperately had to find Ben, she gave up on searching through that mass of people and stood on the corner of a street, where she hoped sooner or later she would spot him walking by.

Facing a constant stream of people made her feel dizzy. Daphne wasn't used to crowds, and being surrounded by people left her with a constant feeling of entrapment. Standing there for the first ten minutes was a little nerve-wracking. There was a group of loud, drunk girls nearby, jokingly pushing each other, and a few times dangerously tripping way too near Daphne. But, when they were gone, and Daphne could neither hear their laughter nor observe their lack of balance, she actually started to feel more at ease.

Standing where she was, she could see the band playing perfectly well. She could also watch people walking up and down College Avenue, without feeling too threatened by them. She recognized a few classmates when they went past her, and even acknowledged their presence when some of them surprisingly waved at her.

Ben, however, was nowhere to be found. She was almost certain he would be coming to the party, because his best friends where in town with that purpose. She regretted, though, not asking Jane if he indeed was celebrating Halloween; if so, what his costume was.

And then she saw a man's blond hair glowing under Halloween lights on the other side of College Avenue, and her heart skipped a beat.

She ignored her fears, and ran across College Avenue to go talk to him. A young man even admired in a drunken manner, accidentally spilling his beer as he gesticulated, how pretty he thought she looked when she ran past him diverting people, holding her dress up to her knees to make running easier. “Wow,” he said, but she didn't hear him.

When she reached the sidewalk, she looked from right to left, but didn't see Ben. She sighed and walked away, disappointed, stopping by the window of a nearby shop to be less exposed. When she turned to continue watching people, was then startled by the masked man who had greeted her in front of The Sphinx.

“Hello?” Daphne said, uncertain.

He bowed, and she couldn't help laughing at how formal his greeting was.

“I'm sorry,” she said, when she realized she had been inappropriate. “I guess I belong to a different time, right?” She added, smoothing the wrinkles on her dress.

He gestured that she shouldn't worry.

“Are you Émile?” She asked. She had hoped he would be Émile, but he simply shrugged.

Although meeting a stranger normally left her uncomfortable, she felt surprisingly at ease next to him.

“Are you a man or a woman?” Daphne asked, and he raised a finger to signal he was the 'first option', a man. Seeming offended, he pointed at his broad chest and raised his arms to show his muscles.

Daphne laughed again at his sexist vanity.

“I didn't mean to offend you, but many women can be strong too.”

He shrugged and then pointed at her.

“Oh, me?” She asked, and then outstretched her unhealthy looking skinny arms. “I clearly am a strong woman.”

He probably laughed. She couldn't tell. His mask concealed his face well, but she thought she heard muffled laughter.

“Are you a student at McAdams?”

He shrugged.

“Aren't you going to give me a hint of who you are?”

He shook his head, and Daphne grunted.

“You've got to be Émile. May I see your face?” She asked, impatient, and reached for his mask, but he stepped back just in time to keep his identity concealed.

Daphne was embarrassed. She didn't know what had gotten into her for her to behave so carelessly.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I'm never this impulsive. I – I should go now.”

The masked man, however, raised his hands to stop her. He pointed at himself and gave her the thumbs up to show he wasn't offended, and outstretched a hand to her.

Daphne looked at his gloved hand and blinked confused. She couldn't, although she wanted to, bring herself to hold the hand of a stranger, particularly considering that the stranger in question wanted to remain anonymous.

“I – I have to –,” Daphne said, and awkwardly pointed at the opposite direction to show that she had to go that way, but the masked man sensed it was an excuse and gently held her hand.

Although she was surprised, she wasn't startled. In a different situation, she would have jumped back. But there was something about him that soothed her social anxiety. So, she allowed herself to be led by him.

They left the sidewalk and snaked through the crowd. Although she didn't like being surrounded by so many people, Daphne noticed that she felt safer with him. All she had to do was to hold his hand, and he led the way.

Whenever someone, conscious or not, threatened to be a barrier on their way, the masked man protected her. Daphne smiled, satisfied. Nobody had ever shown such care for her.

They stopped near the stage. Daphne then noticed that the band playing was comprised of boys dressed as zombies. Some of them, as they played, tried to behave accordingly. The lead singer's dance steps, however, were too elaborate for him to stay in character.

The masked man began dancing, still holding Daphne's hand. She tried to tell him a few times that she wasn't a good dancer, but in response he spun her to keep her moving.

Daphne danced the best way she could, occasionally laughing at herself. She had danced in public only once in her life, on a party Abelard held at home to celebrate a new novel he had published.

Barely an hour had passed, and Abelard was already drunk. He spotted Daphne sitting in a corner to go unnoticed, and out of the blue announced to his guests that she would dance for them. Daphne tried to escape his intoxicated madness, but Abelard had time to put a tango on the stereo and reach for her at the bottom of the staircase. That was the most traumatic experience she had ever lived.

Fireworks lighting up the sky startled her. They went up making hissing noises, and exploded into silver, golden and red stars. People's upturned faces glowed in amazement, but their expressions soon gave place to nervousness, to an anxiety that got them pushing each other as they disbanded into adjacent streets.

At first, Daphne didn't know what was going on. Fireworks never ceased to bewitch her, but people's reactions scared her. She didn't know whether she should continue looking up, or start running like everyone else did.

Before she could make up her mind, the masked man was already pulling her. They didn't go far, though, and stood panting on the corner of a street to catch their breath. Daphne thought he would take off his mask, but he only raised it enough to uncover his mouth and nose. Although she didn't recognize him, what she could see of his features left her thinking that he probably was a handsome guy.

“Why are these people running?” Daphne asked him, but when a group of people went by murmuring to each other a list of places where they should go, her question was then answered. “Oh, the treasure hunt. I'm guessing the fireworks signaled the beginning of the race.”

The masked man nodded. He took a good deep breath, and adjusted his mask back on to entirely cover his face. That thing clearly was a nuisance to him, but he wasn't going to give it up easily.

Daphne looked around. The band was still playing, but nobody seemed interested in them anymore. People were desperately running everywhere, as if running for their lives. Some of them – sometimes jokingly, other times not so much – pulled or tripped their friends to sabotage them.

It was then clear that from that point on, celebrating Halloween in Middleton meant joining the treasure hunt, which Daphne didn't want to do.

“I think I should go home now,” she said, and sighed a little disappointed that when she was starting to enjoy it, the party was over for her. “It was nice meeting you. Take care,” Daphne told him, and spun on her heel to go back to The Sphinx.

Her sudden goodbye surprised him, who then ran after her waving his arms in an awkward attempt to get her attention without having to talk, but ended up accidentally bumping into a man dressed as a viking. He stumbled back and fell.

Daphne looked back when she overheard someone's angry voice, and saw that her new friend was in trouble.

“Please, don't!” She yelled, and held the man's arm to stop him from punching the masked man, who was sitting on the ground with a hand instinctively raised to protect his head. “What's wrong with you?” She asked, mad, and was surprised to recognize a familiar face when he turned to her.

“Daphne? Oh, I – I didn't see you,” Jesse stammered, equally surprised to see her.

“Why are you acting like this? What did he do to you?”

She was angry, and wouldn't let Jesse's bewildered expression stop her. “So you've decided to start striking people on the street for no reason?” She asked in a high pitch.

Jesse looked from the masked man, who had just stood up, to Daphne.

“You're on his side,” he said, though more as a thought to himself than to her, and slapped his own forehead a few times in self-punishment. “Stupid. I'm so stupid!” He said and darted away.

Daphne could have stopped him, but she didn't want to talk with Jesse anymore. At least not that evening, not while her skin still had bruises of being hit on the back by him.

“Are you all right?” She asked the masked man, but before he could respond, it then was her who needed assistance.

Her heart was racing, and she felt dizzy. Worried that she was going to pass out, Daphne sat on the sidewalk and rested her head on her knees. She didn't know why, but she couldn't help feeling that Apollo had something to do with that sudden sickness. Afraid that she would indeed find him standing across the street sending bad vibe toward her like a creepy wizard, she forbore glancing that way.

“What's the matter?” The masked man asked her, and sat next to her with a hand on her back.

Although she wasn't feeling well, she couldn't help smiling. The masked man had talked. His voice came out muffled and alarmed. But, instead of trying to figure out whether it sounded familiar at all, she found herself wondering whether it really was possible for friendships to begin in such short amount of time, for she truly liked him already.

“Ah, so you talk only when you think I'm dying? Good to know.”

He then felt her forehead. Although she couldn't see his face, it was clear that he was very concerned for her health.

“I'm sorry. I'm feeling better,” Daphne said, embarrassed. “Really. I am. It's just that. . . Well, I'm not always that impulsive. My heart can't take the tension.”

The masked man gently stroke her shoulder in support, and helped her get up.

“I really don't know why Jesse treated you like that,” she said. “Do you know him?”

He shook his head.

“I used to live at the Franks' Inn, and that's where I met him,” Daphne said. “Well, I actually met him on the bus when we were coming to Middleton, but we spoke for the first time at the inn. He's a nice guy, really. One of the few people who supported me. But he's too violent at times, and that scares me.”

He then pointed at her, and Daphne quickly understood that he was asking whether Jesse had ever hurt her.

“Oh, yes,” she said, and was surprised at the good humor in her voice. “I have a few bruises on my back from last week, but don't tell anyone. I know that Jesse didn't hit me on purpose. I was trying to defend someone he wanted to kill. Well, someone he didn't realize he was killing.”

She didn't know what was the masked man's expression when she told him about getting hit by Jesse, because his mask didn't let her see his face. She imagined, however, that it wasn't too different compared to the dramatic sadness of his mask. But, after being so open, she felt a little awkward. She couldn't tell what judgment he made of her.

They stood silently staring at each other, until a group of teenagers went past them loudly talking about going to the woods to search for the prize there.

Their excitement was so great, that Daphne couldn't help smiling. The masked man, misunderstanding her reaction as admiration for the woods, then signaled for them to do the same.

“What? You want us to go to the woods? I'm not sure that's a good idea.”

Daphne knew for a fact that wasn't a good idea at all. Apollo liked to hang out in the woods. What if he did something bad to them? But, although she didn't want to go, she acquiesced when the masked man started pulling her hand.

On the way to the woods, she at first expected to see the masked man join the others in their agony to find the mysterious prize, but he didn't leave her side. She soon understood that he didn't want to compete. Although she could not see his face, she knew that his expression was calm. The way he walked was relaxed, sometimes even too languid, but fast enough to accompany her side by side.

“Why don't you want the prize?” She asked him after they got yelled at by a group of people for being on the way.

He simply shrugged. She smiled at him, after all it wasn't like she was expecting him to give her a better answer. He then pointed at her.

Daphne thought for a while. Other than feeling scared about getting herself into something she had a feeling she wasn't prepared to experience, she didn't know precisely why she didn't want it.

So, she shrugged like he had done, and laughed at herself, for shrugging indeed was the best answer.

The walk to the woods was one of the best things she had done in a while, which surprised her. The path they picked was a long cobblestone road, well lit like the rest of Middleton that evening. Wooden poles dotted the sides of the street, and from them hung tiny lights that reflected the shiny cloth and glitter of the many people's costumes also walking there.

The road forked in the end, giving pedestrians two directions which to take. Right or left. But when they arrived at that point, the masked man signaled for them to go straight.

“We probably shouldn't go that way,” Daphne said, a little uncertain whether they should enter the woods. “It will be too dark in there,” she said more to herself than to him.

The masked man then pointed at the full moon, which shone bright in a cloudless sky.

“You're right. The moonlight is more than enough,” she said with a smile, and they entered the woods.

After a few minutes walking, Daphne felt that she should be more honest with him. “I must confess something. I've been in the woods many times on my own. I don't have many friends, you see. But, no matter which way I go, I always mysteriously end up reaching the lake.”

The masked man touched her shoulder in support. And she was then relieved that bit of information about her didn't bother him.

They continued walking, occasionally stopping to hear the cries of other people in the woods. People who, like them, had left the safe open roads that surrounded and crossed the woods and ventured into dense, wild paths. Hearing them was strange, since she had always thought the woods to be a place for solitude. It was somewhat comforting to know, though, that if something bad happened, she could cry for help.

As they walked, Daphne looked up at the sky trusting that the masked man's hand on her shoulder would keep her from falling. It was starry, dotted with way more stars than normal.

“Where did they come from?” She muttered to herself, still looking up while walking. “Those new stars,” she added.

She remembered that when she was younger, she used to sit in the backyard to watch the night sky. Once, Chris and Kyle made her company. That evening, fireflies appeared near the river that crosses the Chases' grounds, and the boys spent hours hopping after them, both thinking they were shooting stars that had fallen in the farm.

Daphne was back from her daydreaming when the masked man gently squeezed her shoulder. She looked at him, surprised, and he signaled that she should look ahead.

Her heart skipped a beat. “The lake!” She said, startled. “See, I always end up here. It's like I have a magnet always pulling me to this place.”

The masked man entered the clearing, and headed toward the lake. Daphne craned her neck looking for Apollo, but he luckily wasn't there. She thought it was suspicious that neither him nor his hot air balloon were there, but she couldn't just stay hiding behind the trees forever. Her new friend wouldn't understand her worries; so, although apprehensively, she walked toward him.

Daphne sat on a rock next to the one where he sat watching the lake. She wondered if he would still want to be her friend, if he knew the strange things that had happened to her there. Would he think that I am crazy, like Caleb does?

There was a gray cloud above his head. She was surprised she could see them again, but even more so to see that he was sad.

“Why are you sad?” She asked him.

He abruptly looked at her, startled that she had sensed his sadness.

“Your mask is that of a sad man,” Daphne explained.

The masked man nodded, confirming her suspicion. He then pointed at himself, and raised his forefinger.

“Number one?” Daphne asked, and hesitated. “I'm sorry. I'm not sure what you meant, but I guess I know how you're feeling. I'm sad, too.”

She looked at the lake, and sighed. He touched her shoulder in support, and Daphne then knew he wanted to hear her story.

“My father is a very difficult man,” she said, and noticed how dry her throat was. “He is stubborn, and at times I think he is conscious of how childish he is, but behaves like that just to give us a hard time. Just to test us, I don't know. Test our loyalty to him or something like that. I came to Middleton to escape him. I want to write a new book, but I couldn't write at home with him around. It's hard to concentrate on my story when. . . when he's drunk or depressed, crying out my name to go fetch him another bottle of wine.”

She was then sobbing, and above her head her own gray cloud grew bigger and thicker with rain. The masked man, alarmed by her sorrow, left his rock and sat on the ground in front of her, squeezing her hands between his.

“You know what's pathetic?” She continued. “I left my home in Lavinia thinking that it was enough for me to write my book, but here I am in Middleton and I still can't finish it. I can't even start it. I'm afraid – Oh Gosh, I'm so afraid I will never get it done,” she told him, and fell into convulsively crying under the rain that fell on her from the cloud.

She desperately cried for long minutes, as the masked man rubbed her hands. When she realized the exhibition she was making of herself, she stopped and quickly wiped her tears with the back of her hands.

“I'm sorry,” she said, and stiffened her back in a poor attempt to look stronger. “You probably think I'm weak,” she added with a self-deprecating smile.

He shook his head vehemently and pointed at the muscles in her arms.

“What? You're saying you think I'm strong?”

He nodded, and she couldn't help laughing. He then pretended to be writing, moving his hand in the air, and gave her the thumbs up to indicate that he trusted she would write her book.

She started crying again, though this time happy that she had met him, and flung herself into his arms. He hugged her tightly and stroke the back of her head as she sobbed.

“I feel like I live outside my body,” she confessed, still in his arms. “I'm hovering over myself. Can't – can't hear my thoughts, my ideas, my characters. I still can see them, though. They are still there, watching me.” She gasped, when she realized what she had just said. “Oh, please, don't think I'm crazy. I'm just – I'm –.”

The masked man patted her back, and she understood it was his way of saying she shouldn't worry.

Daphne looked up and saw the moon. It was beautiful up in the sky, and she couldn't help feeling melancholy. She mentally wondered whether she would be able to one day feel entirely happy.

They stayed together for what felt like eternity, watching the moon in the sky. She wanted calmness, but her thoughts were in a hurricane in her mind. She couldn't stop thinking of her father, and wondering if he was fine, if her family was fine, if her decision to leave had been a mistake.

“You know, I've only opened up so much to only one person about my father,” she said, breaking the silence. “My friend Marie Delbes, the owner of The Sphinx, is the only one who truly knows me here.”

To her surprise, the masked man abruptly stood up.

“What's the matter? Have I offended you?” Daphne asked him, although she didn't think that having another confidant wasn't reason for him to feel hurt or to be angry with her.

He shook his head to say he wasn't, and pointed at the way they had come from. He was in a hurry to leave.

“Are you saying you have to go?” Daphne asked, and couldn't help feeling sad.

The masked man then nodded.

“Please, can't you stay a little longer?” She begged.

He held her hand and gave it a little squeeze. She didn't know how to interpret that gesture, but deep inside she knew that wasn't just merely goodbye.

“But why were you so alarmed after I mentioned my friend?”

Signaling an excuse with his hands was very difficult, almost pitiful. Although curious, Daphne thought, after how supportive he had been, she should spare him from trying to explain himself in that mute manner. “Was it just a coincidence?”

He nodded a few times, clasping his hands as if pleased, and then tried pulling her out of the clearing.

“No, wait,” Daphne said, and gently pulled her hand free. “You don't have to walk me back. I'll stay here a little longer.” And, as he seemed uncertain, she added, “It's all right. I've been in and out of these woods many times. I guess this is farewell, isn't it? Am I right to think it's unlikely we'll see each other again?”

The masked man looked like he was about to shrug, but then changed his mind and nodded.

“Yeah, I had a feeling that would happen. . .” She said, and couldn't hide the sadness in her voice. “Thank you. . . Thanks for everything. I won't forget you.”

He gave her a hug, and with his hand in a fist he touched his chest as if to say she was in his heart as well.

“Wait!” Daphne asked, and ran toward him before he left the clearing. She took a necklace she had around her neck, and put it around his. “I got this from Marie. It's Saint François de Sales, patron of writers and journalists. Maybe one day he will help us meet each other again. Who knows that's even how I'm going to recognize you without your mask. Doesn't that sound like a great surprise in a story?”

He nodded, touching the pendant. And, after giving her a last hug, darted away.

Daphne went back to the rock where she had sat with the masked man, and there she stayed watching the lake with a strange feeling in the bottom of her stomach. She was nervous, but at least the cloud above her head had disappeared. She didn't know why, but she felt like she had missed an opportunity to do something she didn't know what it was. Maybe she had reached one of those crossroads moments her mother always talked about, but had not noticed it.

And then she remembered him. Ben. She had forgotten she had to find Ben.

She quickly stood up ready to leave, but her legs became stiff and her blood froze when she noticed someone had been watching her from behind a tree.

Daphne's heart was beating fast. She could feel adrenaline going through her body and a pinching sensation on her face, but didn't know what to do. She let out a shriek when that curved figure stretched out a hand to reach her. The figure walking toward her was bestial, with hair falling over its shoulders.

“Stay away from me,” she cried, but the figure glided to her and reached for her face. Daphne saw its pointy, sharp teeth glistening.

The poor soul entrapped in evilness, hunting in the woods on Halloween, had smelled her depression and come after her to feed on sadness. She couldn't fight back. Fear stole her consciousness and strength. Terror took over her senses, and the world around her went completely dark. She knew it was the end.

When Daphne opened her eyes, it took her a while to understand where she was. The place, with wooden walls, was poorly lit. She tried to remember when she had arrived at The Sphinx. Instinctively, she looked for Marie, but her friend wasn't there.

A door opened, and an old lady walked in carrying a bowl.

Daphne gasped and sat up, alarmed, sinking in pillows that were way too soft. She wasn't at The Sphinx.

“Don't you recognize me anymore, child?” The old lady asked, placing the bowl on her bedside table.

Fear, however, was the only thing in Daphne's memory. She remembered she had seen a figure in the woods, a strange creature that wanted to attack her.

“I don't have cash on me, but – look, this bracelet costs a lot,” Daphne stammered, and raised her wrist to show a silver bracelet her father had given her on her last birthday. The little encrusted crystal stones sparked under the light of the candle on the bedside table. “If you give me a chance, I'll get you money, though,” she added.

“That's a pretty bracelet, child,” the old lady said, and raised her head to Daphne. “But no one wants money here. No, no, thank you very much. Money is a curse.”

“Esther Brown?” Daphne asked. But the woman in front of her didn't have to answer.

Esther still had the same shaggy hair of when Daphne met her, and the same clothes eaten by moth. Her eyes shone sadly amidst a sea of wrinkles. They were humid eyes. Eyes of those who cried inside.

“I made you soup,” Esther said, out of the blue, and pointed at the bowl. “A soup made with magic stones,” she added in a mysterious tone.

“Magic stones?” Daphne repeated, and glanced at the bowl. The soup looked like it was made with common vegetables, but she knew she was nobody to question Esther.

“Magic stones that the fairies gave me. They told me they were good to strengthen your nerves. Try it,” Esther said with a smile.

Daphne looked from Esther to the bowl, nodded, and took a spoonful.

Esther looked at her with curiosity. “What do the stones taste like?”


“Really? Try them again.”

Daphne took another spoonful. And then another, just to make sure she tasted well what she was eating.


“Still taste like potatoes,” Daphne confirmed.

“Are you sure, child?”

“Yes. Potatoes.”

“And may I know how many times in your life you've had potatoes? Don't think I'm doubting you, but we need to be sure you really know what potatoes taste like.”

“I. . . I don't know.”

Daphne's hesitation made Esther's face turn into a question mark. The old lady raised her eyebrows, questioning Daphne's palate.

“I meant that – that I don't know exactly how many times I've had potatoes, but I do remember the last time I had them. It was two days ago, for dinner, at my friend Marie's house. And I assure you that the fairies' magic stones taste just like Marie's potatoes.”

Esther grunted half curious, half accepting her description, and smiled. And, distracted, she said nothing else about potatoes and walked out the room.

Daphne quickly left the bed and went after her.

The old lady opened a window and inhaled the cold night air. The moonlight shone straight at her, making the whiteness of her hair turn silvery blue.

“Oh, look!” Esther said, excited, and pointed at a spot in the woods. Daphne craned her neck to see what Esther was looking at, but she was on the way, so she joined her by the window. “Look how graceful they are. How they dance in the air. Tonight, they're amused by all these people wandering in the woods. That means more opportunities for them to do mischief. Do you see them?”

“Yes,” Daphne said.

“I knew you would. Did you know it was them who made my face look like this?” Esther asked, and ran her finger through her wrinkles. When she reached the scar on the right side of her face, her expression was somber.

“How did you get that scar?” Daphne dared ask her.

Esther, however, was lost in thoughts.

“Such mischievous little creatures,” Esther murmured with a smile. “Sometimes they are so jealous. Jealous of each other. Jealous of us. I used to look like them, but then they did this to me. It was their doing when you thought I was a monster, before you fainted by the lake. Forgive them,” she said and paused for a few seconds. “I don't care when people say I'm a witch. Sometimes I am. It keeps intruders away. I don't like intruders.”

She then hugged herself and gently rocked her body.

“I need to go now,” Daphne said. She was starting to feel nervous that so far she hadn't talked with Ben.

“Why didn't you go home when I told you to?”

Esther's question surprised Daphne. She didn't think the old lady still remembered that strange admonition.

“I couldn't. I had, and still have, obligations here,” Daphne said, patiently.

The old lady grunted and went to sit at the table.

“The more time you spend here, the more you'll suffer,” Esther said, and slammed her fist at the table in frustration.

“Everything bad that had to happen to me, already occurred. I don't see what else could happen.”

Esther rose, perturbed. She paced by the table, muttering incomprehensible words.

Daphne wanted to calm her, but a pile of plastic bags on the corner distracted her. Although she wasn't sure why she felt so intrigued, she wanted to take a look at them.

“Excuse me, Esther,” she said, and crouched by the bags. “Forgive me if I'm being nosy, but – Ah, I knew it. Fireworks! Why do you have fireworks here?”

The old lady craned her neck to take a better look at the bags, and smiled.

“Because it is I who gives a prize every Halloween.”

Daphne quickly stood up, startled.

“Are you the mysterious donor?”

Esther nodded, and her eyes lit up with pride. Daphne felt goosebumps.

“But – How so? And – Why?”

“Because I had things that I didn't want to. So, I decided to give them away,” Esther said calmly.

Esther's cabin was humble and rustic. At least nothing there within Daphne's sight seemed worthy of such magnanimous fame and rumors of grandeur the mysterious prize had; unless, of course, some bankrupt cook was in serious need of kitchen utensils, considering the exaggerated number of pans hanging on the walls.

“You'll find nothing else here,” Esther said, noting the state of mental confusion in which Daphne was. “Today is the last Halloween I'll give something to the people of Middleton. I'm satisfied with what I have now.”

Daphne didn't know whether to believe or not in Esther, but the idea that the old lady – the one Tammy so openly despised – was responsible for the most famous mystery in Middleton was extraordinary.

“I don't know what to say,” Daphne said, still in awe.

“Do you want to know where the prize is?” Esther suddenly asked.

Daphne looked at her in amazement. The old lady, strangely, seemed to be getting more wrinkles. She was aging faster than everyone else. It was the result of a curse that had been cast upon her by the fairies at that very moment dancing outside, it seemed.

“No. I – I don't think so,” Daphne stammered.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Daphne said, more confident. She couldn't understand, however, why she was trembling.

“Do you want to know what the prize is?”

Daphne's throat was dry. She didn't know why Esther's questions felt so difficult to answer. There she found herself on the verge of getting to know that which everyone in Middleton longed to find, that which they coveted more than anything. That was the prize capable of changing lives. To touch it was to get the opportunity to live a new life. A life away from everything bothersome, saddening, everything that restrained the human rights to be happy and to fly.

“No,” Daphne said. Although part of her wished to have said 'yes', the one that refused was that which – although feeble, and trembling voiced – was stronger and prevailing. “I don't want to know,” Daphne repeated.

“All right,” Esther said. “Understandable. It's all because you still are mistress of your own destiny.”

“Why do you say these things? You sound like you know more about my future than I do myself.”

“That is because I'm a witch,” Esther said jokingly, but Daphne noticed the sadness in her eyes.

“No, you're not.”

“Go back home,” Esther suddenly said, upset.

“Not yet. I need to finish my book first.”

“There's still time for you to save yourself. Accept the first sign, and go back home.”

“First sign of what?”

“Sign that not too long from now you'll be his slave. Sign that he is going to take everything you love. And he's started. Tonight, in fact, he's out there plotting against you for your lack of devotion to him.”

Daphne's heart sank, and she suddenly felt her body getting cold. There is no way she knows about Apollo. How could she? “Why do you say that?” Daphne asked with a trembling voice.

“Because the Sphinx lost its face tonight,” Esther sang. “Isn't that what it should look like?”


“The Sphinx has fallen. It's now ruins. Ruins, ruined. Lost. You lost it. You lost her.”

Daphne gasped. A terrible – the most terrible thought – crossed her mind.

“Marie? Are you talking about Marie? How do you know about Apollo's threat? Don't do this to me, Esther!”

“Who's Apollo?” Esther asked with a dazed expression. “I know no Apollo.”

“He. . . I – I mean Creativity. Did he make her leave? Was that what you meant? She didn't do this to me.”

The old lady raised her eyes to Daphne and smiled. More wrinkles formed around her mouth, and her eyes disappeared under heavy eyelids. “I don't know who you are talking about, child.”

“No, she didn't do this to me,” Daphne said, already in tears, and darted away from Esther's hut.

She didn't know which way to go, but she didn't stop to think. Daphne went through the woods as fast as she could, desperately hoping that she wasn't too late.

Daphne had no idea how long she had stayed in Esther's cabin, but in the time she had been there, it had gotten colder. The sky wasn't beautiful anymore. Most stars had fallen, part of them had followed the moon wherever it had gone. In their place, instead, there was a sad compact mass of clouds.

As she ran, Daphne heard a rustling noise right above her head. When she looked up, she noticed that a giant vulture was chasing her. Her mouth fell open in amazement, but her body luckily didn't freeze. She quickly turned to the left and hid behind a tree.

She felt a sharp pain in her back, but was able to hold her breath. Her wings had grown. There they were, fully grown angel wings.

The vulture – a dense group of shadows constantly tangling and disentangling into each other – continued flying over the trees. Daphne didn't know why that thing was looking for her. Could that be Apollo's new form? Is he looking for me now that he's taken Marie? No, that can't be true. I'll find her safe at home. She's in her apartment, safe and sound, waiting for me.

Emerging from the shadow cloud, formless busts loomed here and there, and they craned their necks in all directions looking for her.

She had to cover her mouth with both hands not to let one of them, one who had stretched out its body until behind the tree where she was hiding, hear her sobs. Daphne was afraid she had lost Marie, and couldn't help crying.

New fireworks crossed the sky, and the noise and light scared the shadows. They curled into each other again and flew away.

Daphne dropped beside the tree, weeping convulsively.

Her feet were hurting. She touched her right ankle and felt it was damp. When she raised her fingers, she realized she was bleeding a lot. Her shoes had been hurting her all night.

When Daphne was trying to get up, despite how painful her feet were, she heard a noise coming from behind her. She let out a shriek of fear when a figure approached running, and closed her eyes tightly like she used to do as a kid, whenever visited by those only her eyes could see.

She screamed louder when she felt someone held her wrists, and struggled furiously, ready to fight for her life.

“Stop it, scandalous woman! What happened to you?” She heard, and that familiar arrogant tone made her stop crying immediately.

“Oh, it's really you, Caleb. What – what are you doing here?” She asked, embarrassed, and pulled her wrists free.

“What do you mean by 'it's really you'? And what the hell were you doing in these woods, screaming like a mad wolf? Like a wounded wolf. Or, worse, like a mad and wounded wolf,” he asked, jokingly.

But Daphne was neither patient nor willing to hear Caleb. She thought of the mass of shadows she had seen, and looked around to see if she had attracted them with her cries.

Caleb was intrigued and slightly entertained by her distracted manner. “Who are you looking for?”

“Nobody! Who would I be looking for here, in the middle of nowhere?” Daphne snarled.

“Hm, I guess I know who you're looking for. You're looking for Ben, aren't you? But you won't find him here. He went looking for the prize on campus.”

Oh, no, there's Ben too to look for! She couldn't believe he had joined the treasure hunt, but there was no time to go looking for him. Marie needed her the most at the moment.

“And I suppose you too are looking for it, greedy like you are.”

“I am not,” Caleb said, strangely defensive. “I don't need it. And I have no idea why out of a sudden you're calling me greedy.”

“I've gotta go,” Daphne said, and spun on her heels to leave, but Caleb caught her arm.

“Wait, I need to talk to you.”

“Leave me alone!” She cried, again in tears. “What do you get from torturing me daily? At least today, could please just leave me alone?”

“What – what happened?” He asked, and his hesitation suggested genuine interest in her problems, but Daphne knew she could not rely on Caleb's sudden friendliness.

“Nothing,” she snapped, and with an abrupt movement, pulled her arm free. “I need to get to The Sphinx,” she said, and prepared to run, but Caleb cut in.

“The bookstore isn't that way,” he said quickly. “In fact, that way will lead you to even more nowhereness. Come on, I'll take you there. Don't look at me like that. There is courtesy even between enemies, did you know that? If you get lost here tonight, I won't have someone to fight tomorrow.”

Daphne rubbed her forehead, annoyed. She had no other option but to trust Caleb's guidance as the moonlight grew fainter behind clouds and her astonished senses tricked her mind.

“Okay, but let's hurry,” she said and they both left running.

When they got to the bookstore, the golden Sphinx on the door was gone. It looked as if it had been scraped off it. That wasn't a good sign.

Daphne desperately went up the steps, stumbling on a step or two.

“I'll wait here!” Caleb shouted from the first floor.

Daphne hastily turned the light on in the apartment, but instead of finding Marie in bed, she found a sheet of paper on her pillow. Daphne covered her mouth with one hand, and staggered up to it. It was a letter. With her eyesight blurred with tears, Daphne read:

My Dear Daphne,

I am really sorry to leave you like this, but I didn't know how to talk with you. This time of the year brings too much sadness. I didn't tell you, but my Gitan left on Halloween two years ago. Since then, Halloween lost all its magic and became a dark day. A day when I'd rather stay on my own.

Yesterday, I found a letter in The Sphinx. I think someone brought it when we were not at home. I found it when I came back from the Franks' Inn, before you arrived. You saw it too, when you caught me crying. I'm afraid, Daphne, I wasn't crying just because I missed him. I was crying because in his letter he said he would be returning to Middleton today to pick me up. He said he missed me, and wouldn't let me refuse going away with him.

Since I read his letter, I've been debating whether I should take you with us. We've known each other for a few months; although that's a short amount of time, I feel as if you were my child too. I had decided to convince you to come along, but I saw you studying this afternoon, and I realized that you belong in a completely different world. You have goals to accomplish, and I didn't want to distract you from them. I thought of your parents, too. I wouldn't want them to feel the same way I did without my son. Your parents need you. And you need them too. They are your family, and family is the most sacred thing.

At this very moment, as you read this letter, I am with Émile. Please, don't be angry with me. You made my days very happy. Wherever I am, I'll be thinking of you. I hope you'll understand my decision to leave, and forgive me that I couldn't say goodbye in person. Sometimes we get urges to leave everything behind, but know that I take you in my heart.

A friend, Mrs. Laura Johnson, will be in charge of The Sphinx. I left her a letter explaining your situation, and allowing you to stay at the apartment for as long as you want.

It saddens me to think I am leaving the bookstore and so many dear friends behind, but I can't go on pretending I am fine without Émile. That boy is the reason why I am alive. You too, Daphne, but our paths at least now have to be different. I know you'll write your book. Have faith in yourself, and I'll have faith we'll see each other again in the future. This isn't the end of your friendship. Take care, chérie.


Marie Delbes.

When Daphne was done reading Marie's letter, she read it over and over again. She read it many times, until she was convinced it was real.

Sometimes we get urges to leave everything behind. That certainly had been Apollo's doing.

Daphne's throat was dry, and two thick streams of tears went down her face. She couldn't help wondering how ironic it would be if the masked man she had met that evening really had been Émile. She could have stopped him.

Apollo had gone too far, bringing the boy all the way from wherever he was hiding to convince Marie to join him. If only she had stayed home that night.

Her heart was racing, and she felt like going after her. She didn't want to stay in Middleton without Marie's support.

Desperate, she left the apartment running. Her friend probably wasn't too far away. She knew it would be difficult to convince Marie to let her join them, but she would beg until her stubbornness convinced her.

She stopped on the stairs. She couldn't leave Middleton. She couldn't abandon school, because that meant forgetting her book. She couldn't forget the book she was writing.

“Stupid book,” she whispered.

Slowly, she sat on the stairs and hugged her legs close to her chest. Everything had gone wrong in her life. Marie had been her only consolation since she arrived in Middleton, and now she was gone.

Daphne sobbed uncontrollably. She was tired of trying to hold her tears and look like a grown woman. “Why?” She wondered. “Why does everything bad have to happen to me?” She covered her face with her hands.

To her surprise, she heard the noise of someone hastily walking up the steps toward her. Daphne gasped, and uncovered her face to see who that was.

In her grief, she had forgotten Caleb still was there. Without asking permission, he sat by her and hugged her tightly. It didn't matter it was a hug from her nemesis. All she needed was to feel supported, wherever the support came from. She cried for what felt like ages in his arms.

“What happened?” He asked her, alarmed.

“If I go back to the inn, promise you won't make my life more miserable than it is,” she said, and passed the letter to him.

Caleb devoured Marie's words with his eyes. When he was done reading the letter, he nodded in an anguished manner.

“I promise,” he said, and they both shook hands to seal their deal.

And then fear hit her once again. “Oh no, I need to go to the inn right now,” she said, and with adrenaline pumping in her veins, she darted away with Caleb closely following her.

When Daphne walked in the Franks' Inn, she knew immediately that something had happened. Jane and Mrs. Frank were standing by the staircase looking appalled. The minute Jane saw Daphne, she ran to her and grabbed her hands.

“He's gone,” she told Daphne with teary eyes.

“What? Who's gone?” Caleb asked, alarmed, and tripped over his own foot to get a better view of Jane.

Nobody needed to say a thing. From Mrs. Frank's paleness to Jane being on the verge of crying, Daphne knew – like Marie was gone – that Apollo had taken Ben from her as well.

“Benjamin Wallace, dear,” Mrs. Frank said and sighed. “He found the prize, packed his bags and left to the bus station.”

Without hesitation, Caleb left the inn. Following his impulse, Daphne felt like running after Ben, but both Jane and Mrs. Frank held her insisting that it was useless to go after him.

“Grandpa and Ben's friends are now with him,” Jane said, and guided an astonished Daphne to the couch. “If they can't convince him to come back, no one will.”

No one will. For a minute, Daphne thought that it was up to her to bring Ben back, but Jane was right. Ben had no reason to listen to her. She always treated him like he was her enemy. She was too late. If only she had approached him earlier, she would have been able to cancel out Apollo's curse.

But Marie looked way too vulnerable for me to leave her alone. There was something wrong with her, I could tell. I couldn't just leave her and go looking for Ben. But I did leave her. I'm such an idiot! I lost her. I lost both of them to Apollo. What am I going to do now? Gosh, what am I going to do?

“Daphne, dear, are you all right?” Mrs. Frank asked her, and sat beside her on the couch.

“Daphne?” Jane said, and gently touched her shoulder.

“I – I don't know,” Daphne said.

She wanted to cry, but she didn't think she would find the strength to cry again after sobbing for hours that night. It was like she had dried up inside. “Marie is gone too,” she added with a dazed expression.

Mrs. Frank covered her mouth with her hands in surprise, and Jane – strong, mature Jane, still dressed like a zombie ladybug – could hold her tears no longer. “What do you mean?” The girl asked, and her eyes begged for Daphne to say that she had joked about it.

Daphne nodded. “She's gone. She went after her son tonight, and I don't think she's coming back.”

Jane, who always kept her composure, forgot everything she trained herself to be, and burst into convulsively crying like an abandoned kid. “Oh, Marie,” Mrs. Frank sighed, and went to her granddaughter's rescue, rocking Jane's body with her own and telling her motherly words to soothe her pain.

Marie is not coming back, and so isn't Ben.

Daphne sat intently looking at the logs burning in the fireplace, and wondered for how long her wings would stay with her this time. She then remembered her feet had been in pain all night long. She took off her shoes, and her ankles were bloody. She didn't cringe.

Chapter 15
Abstract chapter design

When Daphne woke up, she realized she had fallen asleep again with her forehead resting on her notebook, like the perfect stereotype of a studious student. But there was nobody there to tell her she was overexerting herself with too many all-nighters, nobody to feel proud in a guilty sort of way of her being a hard-worker. For the past weeks, she shut herself in her bedroom at the Franks' Inn and worked on her book from the moment she got back from McAdams College to dawn. Nobody dared to interrupt her for as long as she kept the sign Mr. Frank had given her hanging from her doorknob. Do not disturb, it said, and unperturbed her days went from November, when she returned to the inn, onward.

Although she religiously kept that sign when writing, it wasn't like her neighbors wanted to approach her. On the day Marie and Ben left, she became closed to the world outside her, and went about her day oblivious to everything and everyone around her. Mr. and Mrs. Frank soon learned to let her be, and didn't insist on her coming to have meals with them. She occasionally showed up for dinner, and they contented themselves with those few surprising moments.

Jane, past her shock at losing Marie and Ben, was way more attached to her grandparents – more than she already was – and didn't like wasting time with others when she could simply focus on her family. It was clear that she was afraid of losing them too. The few conversations she had had with Daphne were out of politeness, somewhat mechanical, and always quick. . . which, of course, Daphne didn't see as a problem.

Since Tammy had left, Daphne couldn't help feeling guilty around Jane. It was better, although it broke Daphne's heart to see her melancholy, for the girl to keep her distance.

Jesse was gone. He fled a week after Ben did. Daphne didn't know what his reasons had been, but it wasn't hard to picture what was going on in his mind when he found himself having to live under the same roof with her and Caleb. She had seen him on the McAdams campus, now and then, always surrounded by his teammates. He averted his eyes whenever he saw her; Daphne's eyes, on the contrary, had no reason to avoid his.

She was certain that one day they would be able to mend their short-lived friendship, though not any time soon.

And the last survivor living in the Franks' Inn, Caleb Deheeger, still was Caleb Deheeger with all honors and privileges that appertained to being such young man, but it is enough to say that he kept his promise to Daphne and didn't try to make her life any more difficult.

The only person – or, rather, being – that had any space in her life was Apollo. After losing Marie and Ben, she knew she had to be more obedient, show more respect and devotion. She didn't even bother getting angry at him for taking away the two things in Middleton that gave her any hope. Anger only blinded the senses and caused a lot more trouble than she was willing to experience at the moment. She had had a pretty good share of anguish already, and thought it was time to start seeing things work out for her.

When she showed him her wings and that she could see those storm clouds above people's heads, he was good, sweet Apollo again. She opened her room to him, and he now lived there with her, his hot air balloon constantly floating in front of her window. But they didn't use it as much. Daphne focused on her book, and he had a way of keeping her concentrated while she was working, that the hours passed without her noticing them flying.

Writing with him around was more than productive. It was addictive.

“You let me sleep,” she grunted, massaging her sore neck.

“I sure did,” Apollo said, lively.

“Why? I thought we'd finish the last chapter last night.”

Daphne was eager to finish it. Now that she was so close to accomplishing her goal, she wanted to dive into her book and only emerge when it was ready.

“You're not ready.”

Her eyes were wide in fear that she had displeased him somehow. “I don't know what I've done wrong, but I promise I didn't mean to offend you.”

Apollo smiled. “Sweet Daphne, you haven't offended me. All I am saying is that you're not ready. That's all.”

“I don't understand. I thought I was doing a good job.”

“And you are. Believe me, you are. You've done a beautiful work so far. But –.”

“But I'm now screwing everything up?” She cut in.

“Don't put words in my mouth. That is my job,” he said, and guided her holding her by the shoulders to her bed, where he adjusted her pillow and tuck her in. “Your work is a masterpiece. I couldn't be more proud of my angel. But the last chapter of a book is a very important, perhaps the most important one. You're not ready to write it. Go for it, though, if you think you can.”

Daphne knew she couldn't.

She sighed. “What do you want me to do, then?”

“For now, sleep.”

And so she slept. Even though she had managed to fall asleep sitting up at her desk, she always woke up tired from sleeping leaning on her notebook. Falling back asleep in her bed, well tucked in warm blankets, was not at all difficult.

When she woke up, she heard excited voices downstairs. She had heard excitement coming from downstairs a few times, although those were rare instances those days, and wanted to ignore them. But there was something about the way Apollo was looking at the door that intrigued her.

“What?” She asked him, and he pressed his forefinger to his lips. “What is it?” She whispered.

Apollo indicated the door with his head, very serious, and Daphne then knew he wanted her to investigate what was going on.

She left her bed and went to the door careful not to step on squeaky floorboards. When she opened a crack, Mr. Frank's and Mrs. Frank's voices flooded the room. Everything – or, almost everything, incomprehensible in a mixture of crying, happy high pitched voices, and the distinct word 'surprise' popping up here and there.

“What's going on?” Daphne mouthed to Apollo, and he then made a subtle gesture to show she should go join them. Although she was uncertain whether that was a good idea, Daphne went down the corridor silent and careful as a cat.

She went on, until she got stuck on top of the stairs when she saw her in the living room. Her heart started racing as if she was face to face with danger. Daphne shrunk against the wall, hugging her knees close to her chest, to get out of sight and be able to observe everything from a safe position.

Tammy Molina had changed. There, standing with glistening eyes as she heard her grandparents telling how much they missed her, she looked more mature. She looked like someone who comes back to her hometown after many ears abroad, carrying a certain look that said she knew the world well.

Her hair, which before used to fall over her shoulders like a lion's mane, now barely reached her chin. It also didn't look as red as Daphne remembered it to be. From bright red, it had turned into a dark shade of brown. Her clothes continued as simple as before, but it looked like she was now into long, lifeless black and gray dresses.

The reason for that almost imperceptible hint of melancholy in her eyes, Daphne didn't know. Tammy had always shot fire from those misleading watery blue eyes. What she knew for sure, judging by the suitcase next to her on the floor, was that Tammy Molina had returned to stay.

Perhaps Apollo had brought her back as a prank. Daphne was confused.

She couldn't help feeling strange. That hardly looked like the same woman who had been 'kidnapped' a month ago, but Daphne knew she still was indebted to this new Tammy. She didn't know how much trouble she had caused in her life for wishing her to be gone, but whatever had happened had been her fault. Even if it had been Apollo who had influenced her to leave. Although she wanted to, she couldn't apologize.

“Tammy!” She heard Caleb say from behind her, and was so startled she thought she was going to have a heart attack right then.

Tammy looked up with a large, stunning smile, then looked a little disappointed, and her smile completely vanished when she saw Daphne was there.

Caleb went downstairs skipping a few steps, and hugged her lifting her from the floor and kissing her cheeks like someone greeting an adored child. He had always loved her, but Daphne was surprised to see his love for her was that great.

“Go say hello,” Apollo whispered in her ear, and she stood up with a jolt. She looked around, but he wasn't there. Just his voice had reached her.

Daphne, however, didn't want to go downstairs. She was afraid of what Tammy's reaction would be. She had slapped her on the last day they saw each other, and still lived at the Franks' Inn even though she had been told to leave.

She could clearly picture Tammy marching up to her and paying back the offense with a way more humiliating slap. And then, digging her fingers in Daphne's abundant hair, she would painfully drag her out the door.

“Hello Daphne,” Tammy said, gently freeing herself from Caleb's exaggerated affection.

Daphne could hardly believe her ears, and thought that Apollo was playing tricks on her.

He had lately started a strange, dangerous game to test her senses by now and then sounding like people she knew. Not too long ago, in fact, when she was crossing the street, she heard Marie calling out her name and froze, astonished. She would have been hit by a car, if a woman walking nearby had not pulled her to safety. When she arrived at home that day, he congratulated her. “You can now hear the ones you lost. Let's see how long it takes for you to start seeing them,” he said. She preferred not to get more details, for thinking about Marie left her depressed.

“Why don't you come downstairs to give me a hug?” Tammy insisted. “I didn't think you'd still be here.”

That had to be Apollo's joke.

“Oh, yes, this is Daphne,” Mr. Frank said, happily. “She's one of our –erm, guests. Come down here, Daphne.”

Daphne looked from Tammy to Mr. Frank, and was then certain the girl had indeed asked her to go downstairs. She would have pretended she had left something urgent in her bedroom and then ran away from Tammy's hug, but the way Mr. Frank had talked left her curious.

She went down the steps rather stiffly, and soon noticed there were more people in the living room. Little Andre waved at her, and his face was as round and happy as before. Sitting next to him on the couch, however, Daphne saw a young man she did not recognize.

He was tall – as tall as Ben, in fact – and strong like someone who works out regularly, but not very muscular. His skin was tanned, contrasting with his white T-shirt, and his wavy hair and eyes were bright black. There was something about the way he promptly stood up to shake hands with Daphne and smiled at her that was very endearing, very alluring.

“It is very nice to meet you, Daphne,” he said in a distant Spanish accent.

“It's nice to meet you too,” Daphne said, uncertain about who he was.

He sensed her thoughts, looking all of a sudden a little embarrassed. “I'm Luciano Molina. Andre's father,” he said with a sheepish smile. “And Tammy's husband, of course,” he quickly added.

Daphne's mouth fell open. Not in a million years she would have imagined she would meet Luciano Molina. She looked from him to Tammy, a little confused and uncertain of what to say.

“How about we hug now?” Tammy suggested, and Daphne had no other option other than to accept her deadly hug. She was in Tammy's arms, when her eyes met with Caleb's. He was frowning, as confused as she was. Behind him, Apollo stood by the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, looking quite entertained by all that.

Daphne cringed as she waited for Tammy to stab her, but that never happened. Tammy released her, and stood by her with a puzzling smile. Daphne didn't know whether the frank Tammy or the suddenly friendly one was more scary.

“It is so great to be back here,” Luciano said, admiring the living room. “Nothing changed a bit.”

“Strange,” Caleb said. “I feel as if everything changed since the day I arrived here.”

Daphne mentally agreed with him.

“What do you mean?” Tammy asked him with a smile that tried to look naïve, but was in fact nervous with old fears. She instinctively looked up the stairs, and then back at Caleb.

“Well,” he said, and hesitated when he realized talking about certain topics in front of Luciano, Andre and the Franks wasn't appropriate.

He was mentally searching for a good explanation to his comment, when the front door opened and Jane walked in. She froze when she saw Tammy and Luciano.

“Aunt Jane!” Andre said, excited to see her, and ran to hug her.

Jane was so astonished with that unexpected family reunion, that she could barely respond to the boy's happiness, and simply patted his head, her eyes fixed on Tammy as the boy hugged her legs.

“It's so good to see both my girls at home,” Mr. Frank said, oblivious to the tension in the air. Daphne wondered if he knew anything at all about the problems between them.

Apollo, who had then changed into his bloodthirsty form and personality, burst into laughter.

“Hug?” Tammy suggested, like she had done to Daphne, and walked to her sister with her arms open.

Caleb looked at Daphne, incredulous, and stiffened his back to watch that strange scene. Mr. and Mrs. Frank had silly, fixed smiles of approval. And Luciano, who probably didn't know half of the things that had happened between those two, at least didn't look like he was completely unaware of the resentfulness they felt for each other.

And so Jane and Tammy hugged, Andre strategically left between them. Their hug looked sisterly enough to the untrained eye, but the moment they embraced Daphne was certain that had to be the first time they hugged in a long, long time.

“Well,” Mrs. Frank said, when they were done hugging, “I think we should go show Luciano his room. Are you tired, dear?”

“The trip was a little tiring, yes,” he said with a polite smile and picked up his suitcase.

“Your room, I suppose?” Mrs. Frank asked Tammy. For a second, Tammy looked at Luciano, who looked back at her holding the same polite expression he used to talk with the Franks, and blushed. She finally nodded, and the Franks, who then took Andre by the hand, guided Luciano upstairs.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jane asked, careful to keep her tone of voice low, when her grandparents, Luciano and Andre were out of sight.

“Take it easy, Jane,” Caleb said, dropping on the couch after all that tension.

Jane, however, didn't take his words well. “This is none of your business,” she snapped at him. “Stop intruding.”

Daphne's eyes, even Apollo's, widened. She knew, from the way he slightly frowned, that Caleb was as surprised as she was, but he did a good job in trying to look indifferent by raising his hands to show he wasn't a threat to her.

Despite Jane's irritation, Tammy managed to stay calm. Languid like usual, she walked to the sofa and sat next to Caleb as if that was just a friendly gathering.

“Your anger is unnecessary,” Tammy said. “Luciano and I are just visiting.”

“What?” Jane asked, raising her voice in a high pitch.

“We are only visiting,” Tammy repeated, still tranquil. “We came to see Grandpa and Grandma just briefly. We're leaving tomorrow.”

Without blinking, Jane literally jumped at Tammy to hit her, but Daphne held her back. “You're ungrateful,” Jane said, trembling from head to toe in wrath. “How dare you play with their feelings? They are old. Enough with your selfishness, Tammy!”

Caleb, who like Daphne had strategically placed himself between the two sisters, gave Tammy a nervous look. Tammy squinted her eyes and stood up. Alarmed, Caleb stood up as well.

“Listen carefully,” Tammy whispered to Jane, still keeping her composure, “I don't want to fight, so stop being so childish. I didn't come back to complicate Grandpa and Grandma's life. I'm back just because I wanted to give them an opportunity to say goodbye to Andre, and to reassure them that although I won't be living here, I'll be fine with my husband and my son.”

“Husband?” Jane repeated in mockery, but when she noticed Mrs. Frank was walking down the steps, she stopped and tried to keep a straight face.

“Do you mind helping me prepare dinner?” Mrs. Frank asked Jane, and the girl promptly accepted her request. Before she left to go to the kitchen, Mrs. Frank told Tammy with a big smile that Luciano was in her room and had asked her to go up there.

Daphne and Caleb watched Tammy swiftly go up the steps. Both of them were so lost in their thoughts, that only when Tammy disappeared in the corridor, they finally realized they had been left behind together.

That was the first time since the day Ben and Marie left Middleton that they were together. And, even though so many weeks had passed, Daphne felt as if Halloween had been yesterday.

She glanced at him, and tried to walk away without saying a word, but Caleb held her left wrist. Daphne cringed.

“Don't worry,” he said, immediately letting go of her, “I'm not going to say anything offensive. Not intentionally.”

“I know. I know,” Daphne said, nervously.

It was strange to see that Caleb, who was always in control of everything he got himself into, looked uncomfortable near her. She couldn't help thinking he had changed a lot since the first day they met.

“I just wanted to ask how you're doing,” he said with a sheepish smile. “It's been a while since the last time we talked, and you're always in your room, so it's not like I get to see you.”

“I'm fine, thanks. Thanks for asking,” Daphne said, and felt awkward when she realized she was blushing.

“How's your book?” He asked, and buried his hands in his pockets. He had never done that. Caleb, in fact, always gesticulated too much when he talked. Trapping his hands in his pockets looked like he was sabotaging himself.

Standing behind him, Apollo coughed to clear his throat. But, of course, Caleb didn't hear a thing.

“It's doing fine. I'm almost finished.”

Caleb's smile was large and frank. And, not used to such friendliness coming from him, Daphne blushed even more. “That's awesome. Congratulations!” He said, and looked genuinely happy for her.

“Thank you. And, um. . . how are you?”

“Good. Glad that we're almost done at McAdams. Dreading the finals. You know how things are, you go there too.”

Daphne nodded, and they both laughed nervously. Caleb definitely had changed.

“Go back upstairs, you're missing an important scene,” Apollo whispered to her.

She tried to keep a straight face, but couldn't help finding it a little comical that Apollo was trying to privately speak with her while she actually was the only person who could hear him.

“I need to go back to my room,” Daphne said, and turned on her heels to leave, but Caleb smiled and said he needed to go back to his room as well.

A few weeks ago, Daphne would have felt like dying if she had to go up the steps with him. His presence back then was so disagreeable, that her legs often froze and refused to obey her, so afraid that she was of confronting him. Or, when that didn't happen, a strange, killer instinct would take over her senses and she would want to attack him without hesitation, like she had done twice.

Today, however, although being around him wasn't the best experience, she was starting to think that it was bearable. He had, after all, showed respect for her feelings when she needed support the most. Perhaps, he isn't my nemesis as I thought, Daphne pondered when they entered the corridor. Sensing – or, rather, reading – her thoughts, Apollo strategically placed himself between them.

“I would not take hasty conclusions about this young man, if I were you,” Apollo murmured in her ear, gliding down the corridor as if he had wings.

Although she didn't know why, his comment annoyed her. It was as if he had touched a wound she didn't know she had.

“Problems?” Caleb asked her in a low voice, and Daphne then realized she had been absent-mindedly shaking her head.

“No,” she said, quickly. “No problem at all.”

Taking the opportunity to speak with her, Caleb told her to be careful. And he was serious like she had seen him only once, precisely when he came back from the bus station with Ben's friends and Mr. Frank and they said that there was nothing they could do to stop Ben.

Daphne didn't understand what he meant, but before he could explain it, they overheard Tammy's and Luciano's slightly heated conversation coming from Tammy's room.

“Oh, listen,” Apollo whispered and put on a mischievous smile.

“Why can't I stay in another room?” Luciano asked, annoyed. His voice was just a whisper, but he was so irritated that it came out a little higher than it should. Daphne and Caleb exchanged a glance, surprised.

“Do you want my grandparents to hear you? Remember you promised –.”

He cut in. “You don't have to remind me of that a thousand times. I know what I promised. Now, what I didn't promise was that we'd share the same bedroom.”

“What's wrong with that? We've shared the same room many times in the past.”

Something heavy fell in Tammy's room, like a suitcase falling of a chair, and Daphne couldn't hear what Luciano said in response to her.

“Why are you like this out of sudden? You were doing fine up until the moment you met her. I'm doing my best to be good to everyone, to show we're stable. Do you know how hard it is to. . . I won't have you ruin this!”

Although she wanted to continue listening, she let herself be pulled away by Caleb. Apollo was upset telling her to go back, but she knew Caleb was right. The whole thing was very suspicious, but they didn't have the right to invade Tammy's privacy like that. Beside, it was a better idea to stay out of the way when it came to life in the Franks' Inn.

Caleb went ahead and opened Daphne's door. She walked in, thinking he would follow her, but he stayed outside. “I don't want to bother you, I know you have writing to do,” he said in a whisper, “but I just wanted to tell you to be careful. Keep away from her. You don't know how much she hates you.”

“Does she?” Daphne asked, curious.

He nodded. “She's great, but she can be pretty complicated too. I know you don't trust me, but I'm planning on staying as far as possible while she's here with that guy. Something tells me they're an explosive combination.”

Daphne wasn't used to Caleb giving her advice, but then he knew Tammy better than she did, and he wasn't the first person to say Tammy was a threat to her.

“Okay,” Daphne said.

“I don't know what her reaction will be like when she hears Ben's gone. Did you notice she looked like she was waiting to see him?” He said, and with that he left.

“Why aren't you helping me?” Daphne asked Apollo for the tenth time that afternoon. Laying in her bed, he now and then looked at her with an absent-minded expression, indifferent to her annoyance. “Why? There's only one chapter left. I want to be done with this book right now,” she insisted.

She had been at her desk, pen in hand, for the last five hours.

“We can't just scribble something down and be done with it,” he told her, for the first time speaking since they had eavesdropped on Tammy's conversation. “That's not how you write a masterpiece. You need to feel your story. You need to live. You've been in this room for too long. Live more. For now, just watch that girl, Tammy. She'll inspire you.”

Just the idea of taking Tammy as her second Muse left her nauseous. “I don't need help from her,” Daphne snapped at him, offended he had suggested Tammy could have an influence in her story. “I think you're just lazy today.”

“I do look lazy right now, don't I? If you want to write about a lazy character, I'd fit the perfect lazy beauty description right now,” Apollo said more to himself than to her, and played with the idea of himself looking too languid by letting his right arm and leg carelessly slip to the side of the bed and touch the floor.

Although Daphne preferred to talk with Apollo when he was in his angelic form, at the same time it also was his most irritating one. His handsome face and pretty blond curls left him terribly vain.

“There you are, again, thinking you're Narcissus,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

He looked at her and winked. “You know you love me. I think you're madly in love with me. I'm the handsomest thing you've ever seen!”

“Well, you know what I think? I think you got wri―.”

Apollo, very alarmed, cut in. “Don't say that!”

“Don't say what?” Daphne asked, imitating his mischievous smile. “Say that you got. . . writer's block?”

As if she had shot him, Apollo fell off the bed with a squeak. The moment his body touched the floor, it turned into a puddle of golden water.

Daphne had to cover her mouth with her hands not to scream. Past the shock, she ran to him. Or, rather, ran to what was left of him. She dared touch the puddle with her forefinger, and his remains felt like blood.

“Oh my Gosh, is he dead?” She said under her breath, trembling from head to toe.

A loud knock on her door startled her, and Daphne couldn't help letting out a shriek. “Who is it?” She asked, nervous.

“It's me. Jane.”

She couldn't believe Jane was knocking on her door after so many weeks without visiting her. And she had the 'do not disturb' sign hanging from the doorknob.

“Just a minute,” Daphne said, and instinctively pulled her blanket to hide Apollo's body. That is, to hide the puddle he had turned into. When she saw the golden liquid going through it, she regretted trying to hide it. She then wiped off her fingers on the side of her pants, but the thought of getting rid of evidence on her own clothes also didn't feel like a good idea. “Just a minute,” she asked, once again, and ran to her wardrobe to change her pants, but gave up when she realized Jane wouldn't be able to notice anything. She was, at least, 99% certain she wouldn't, since she didn't see Apollo normally.

“Yes?” Daphne said, and tried to keep a straight face, but she knew Jane sensed something was going on, for the girl hesitated and looked at the blanket on her floor, and then back at her with curiosity.

Before Halloween, the old Jane would have asked Daphne right away what she was hiding, but this new one kept her suspicions to herself.

“Yes?” Daphne asked once again.

“Hi,” Jane said with a sheepish smile. “I know this is awkward. We don't talk as much these days, and today everything is upside down in this house, and you have all reason to continue hiding in this room, but I am begging you to come have dinner with us. You're the only ally I have.”

The word 'ally' was a little startling. The cold war at the Franks' Inn was back.

Daphne wanted to be supportive, but she couldn't help feeling she should stay out of all that, particularly after she had found out Tammy and Luciano were playing the role of perfect couple to impress Mr. and Mrs. Frank, when in reality their marriage was very shaken.

“Jane. . .”

“Oh, come on,” Jane insisted. “I've always been on your side. I've always defended you against my own sister. She's my blood. But, still, I remained on your side. Now that I really, really need your help, you turn your back to me?”

Her words were harsh, and deep inside Daphne felt a hint of annoyance, but she knew Jane was right. The girl had been a loyal friend from the moment Daphne first walked in the inn. She was, perhaps even more than to Marie, indebted to her.

Daphne sighed. “All right. I'll go have dinner with you guys.”

Jane was so elated that she started jumping up and down. She was so excited that the plastic bag she was carrying violently swung back and forth hanging from her arm.

“Oh, here,” she said, when the bag accidentally hit her in the stomach, and handed it to her. “I want you to wear it.”

“Wear what?” Daphne asked, alarmed, and Jane gestured for her to look inside the bag.

Nervous, Daphne opened the bag and took a red dress from it. She had never seen a dress so red.

“I know that red isn't really your color,” Jane quickly said, anticipating Daphne's reaction. “But it's such a beautiful dress. You should wear it to dinner tonight. Now that Tammy is here, we need to remain stronger than her.”

Jane had never behaved like that. Never asked her to wear something different. The dress was beautiful, long till her knees, and definitely more sophisticated than any piece of clothing Daphne had. But knowing Jane, Daphne was sure that wasn't just an attempt to look more triumphant around Tammy. Jane certainly was up to something.

“I don't think wearing this is necessary,” Daphne said and tried to hand the dress back, but Jane refused it.

“Believe me, it is necessary. And don't say stuff like that, because it kinda sounds like something my sister would say. But, really, did you see her? She got a haircut, wearing a dress. . . ridiculous! Can you believe that she is trying to look like my mother?”

Daphne's eyes widened. She had never seen a photo of Jane and Tammy's mother. “Really? Does she look like her?”

“She's just a caricature of my mother!” She said, raising her voice. Daphne motioned for her to be quiet, because Tammy's room was just a few doors away. “Please, Daphne, wear the dress. Help me just this time,” she begged in a whisper.

“Okay,” Daphne nodded, though still thinking the dress would make no difference.

Jane euphorically celebrated, and Daphne had to hold her by the shoulders to make her stop jumping up and down. When the girl finally stopped, she looked at Daphne with bright eyes. “Dinner will be ready soon,” she said, and darted away.

Alone in her room, Daphne threw the dress on the futon and ran to the puddle that was Apollo. Hesitantly, she lifted the blanket and noticed that most of it, strangely, still was intact on the floor.

“Apollo?” She whispered, anguished.

Daphne was so confused by what had happened to him, that she didn't know whether she should start crying that he was dead, or rush to save him, whatever the procedure was.

“What happened to you?” She asked, and a lonely tear ran down her right cheek.

She pushed the blanket away from the puddle, and stood up to look at the damage she had done to her mentor. “What am I going to do?” She wondered, nervously rubbing her forehead.

It was then that she heard the balloon's burner, and with a jolt she ran to open the window. Apollo's hot air balloon still was there, gently hovering by her window. “Oh my Gosh, it's still here!” She celebrated in Jane's fashion. “It's still here,” she repeated to herself, “and the fact that it's here has to be a sign. Right? Were you telling me that your Master is still alive?” She asked the balloon.

As she had hoped it would, the balloon's burner blasted fire once again. She had never talked with it, but always had a feeling that it could understand her and Apollo.

“Thank you, thank you so much!” She said, and patted the side of the basket as if she was patting an obedient dog that had successfully executed a trick. “Do you know what I should do to bring him back?”

Daphne watched the flames go up and down from the burner, as if it was telling her what to do.

She grunted. “I don't understand balloonish,” she said, frustrated, and the burner stopped. “Okay, let's try this again. Ignite if there's something I could do to bring Apollo back.”

No sign of fire.

“What? So there's nothing else I could do?” She asked, a little uncertain about the consequences of not doing a thing to help Apollo. “Do you mean he's just going to perish here?” She asked, and quickly added, “fire means yes.”

Again, the burner didn't blast a flame.

Daphne was very confused. She glanced at the puddle on the floor with an anguished look, and then back at the hot air balloon. “What am I supposed to do? I feel terrible. Is he going to come back to his normal form?” She wondered. Daphne sighed. To her surprise, the balloon replied with a flame.

“What? Okay, relax. Just relax, Daphne. Are you – are you trying to tell me he'll come back to his normal form on his own?” She asked, excited.

The balloon answered positively.

Daphne was so happy, that she started jumping and dancing around the room. She felt so relieved, she could hardly contain herself and started jumping on her bed. When she finally caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she stopped. She was certain that being ridiculously happy didn't suit her and made her look fake.

Embarrassed, although there was nobody there to see her, she went back to the window, thanked Apollo's hot air balloon for bringing back her peace of mind, and then closed it again to keep her room's heat trapped inside. Those had been really cold days.

Past Daphne's excitement, she remembered she had promised Jane she would join her for dinner wearing the red dress the girl had brought, and just the thought of it was enough to erase any bits of happiness left in her and to form a gray cloud a few inches above her head. She had not seen those in a long time, at least not floating above her.

Jane, on the other hand, almost always had a rain cloud following her since Halloween. It persisted with her even on quiet days, when she curled up by the fireplace reading or simply chatting with her grandparents about school. Daphne couldn't tell what made Jane upset, as most of the time she was very good at keeping a calm countenance.

Today, in fact, she had a gray cloud – grayer than it had been before – above her head. And so did Tammy and Luciano, though their clouds were far less thick with rain.

“Relax,” she said under her breath. “Tammy will leave soon.”

While Daphne got ready for dinner, she tried to reassure herself that under those circumstances, Tammy could do nothing against her. If she had understood correctly, judging by that strange hug and what she had overheard, Tammy was doing everything she could to be at her best behavior. She wanted to impress her grandparents, so fighting didn't seem like something she would do and risk spoiling her plans.

It was strange having her back in the inn. Daphne had thought she wouldn't see her ever again. She wanted to discuss that with Apollo, but that wouldn't be possible.

She shuddered at the thought of how he would react once he was back to normal. She had not meant to hurt him when she accused him of having writer's block, and didn't know he would quite literally melt down, but Apollo wasn't good at accepting apologies. All she could do was hope her punishment this time wouldn't be as painful as when he got mad she had lost her wings.

Daphne looked at herself in the mirror, and the girl on the other side was so stunning that her mouth fell open. That scarlet dress looked like it had been tailored for her, and beautifully contrasted with the paleness of her complexion and her long, dark hair, which she was about to tie back in a ponytail, like she normally kept it, but right then she knew she should leave it loose over her shoulders. That was a dress that demanded loose, untamed hair.

“Wow,” Daphne said, and slowly took a few steps closer to the mirror. She had never wore anything like that, not even during the rare parties at her family's house.

She ran her fingers over the ruby-looking stones that dotted the neckline, and couldn't help feeling proud of herself for wearing something like that. She had never wore anything that showed that much cleavage. Something so revealing.

“Jane was right,” Daphne murmured to herself when she saw the cloud over her head vanish. “This dress does help me feel more confident.”

She still had the shoes she had borrowed from Marie. Although she hated high heels, she decided to wear them not to kill the wonderful effect her dress had. Besides, she only had to endure them for an hour or two at most. This time, her feet would not be the mess they were on Halloween.

Although it wasn't 6:00 PM yet, she decided to go downstairs. Being so dressed up in her room left her feeling way too restless. She wanted to walk and feel the dress flowing on her skin. It was the first time she felt really good in an outfit.

Daphne was so happily distracted going down the steps, that when she heard “hello,” she was startled.

“I didn't meant to scare you,” Luciano said with a smile. He was standing behind the sofa, in front of the painting of the guitar player.

She blushed, although she couldn't precise why.

“No problem,” she told him, brushing her hair behind her ears. Having it loose like that was already making her fall back into her social anxiety.

“I believe dinner is at six, but I was hoping they would feed me a few early snacks,” he told her and Daphne couldn't help laughing. Although Luciano Molina definitely looked older than her, perhaps in his late twenties, there was something about the way he talked that made him sound boyish. “That is a pretty dress,” he added, and nodded mentally repeating it to himself.

Daphne blushed again, and instinctively looked down at the dress. “Thank you. But, it isn't mine. I borrowed it.”

Luciano raised his eyebrows and smiled one of his large smiles. “I suggest you forget to return it, then,” he said and winked. “It looks really good on you. In fact, wearing that dress makes you look even more like someone I know. Someone I met here. She had a red dress like the one you're wearing, and her hair was black like yours. Same height, I suppose. She loved that dress. My friend. Julianna. She lived here in the Franks' Inn.”

“Oh,” Daphne said, and slightly rubbed her forehead, “was she Tammy's friend as well?”

“For some time, she was,” Luciano said, and for a second averted Daphne's eyes. The little hesitation was enough for her to know she shouldn't be wearing that dress.

Daphne then lied she had forgotten something in her bedroom and turned on her heel to go change her outfit before others saw her dressed like that, but it was too late. When Tammy's eyes met hers, she felt all strength abandon her legs and got stuck in the middle of the staircase.

“Daphne?” Tammy said, as if she didn't recognize her. “I've never seen you dressed like this.” And she smiled to look like it didn't affect her, but Daphne was close enough to her to notice she had teared up in frustration.

“You've never seen me like this because this dress isn't mine,” Daphne said in a low voice and waited for Tammy, who was carrying Andre in her arms, to walk past her down the steps, and sprinted to her room to get rid of the dress.

Daphne's hand was already on the doorknob when the door to Jane's room opened and the girl walked in the corridor. Her first reaction when she saw Daphne was wearing the dress, was to smile in amazement, but she soon realized there was something wrong.

“What's the matter?” She asked Daphne, uncertain. “Daphne, tell me. You're worrying me,” she insisted, as Daphne just stood there looking annoyed.

“I'm going to take this off,” Daphne finally said, angry.

Startled, Jane walked to Daphne and pulled her by the wrist.

“Let go of me,” Daphne yelled and aggressively pulled her wrist free.

Jane looked at her with glistening eyes. “Don't yell,” she said in a hushed voice. “I don't want to alarm my grandparents. Now, if you don't mind, can we talk in my room?”

Daphne was upset, but followed Jane into her room nonetheless.

Since it was always Jane who looked for her, Daphne had been in her room only a few times. But whenever she visited her, looking at the plush toys here and there never failed to remind her that Jane recently was a child.

“I can't wear this,” Daphne told her when Jane closed the door. Her tone of voice was more controlled, as it felt disconcerting to yell at her with all those toys watching them.

“Why not? You look gorgeous!”

Daphne crossed her arms over her chest. “Because I know it means something bad.”

“What?” Jane asked, surprised, with a nervous smile. Daphne didn't know if it was just the effect of her room, but she thought Jane looked like a kid.

“Don't try to pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. You had never asked me to wear something like this, and then with your sister around, you all of a sudden wants me to change the way I dress to look more confident,” Daphne said, this time unable to keep her annoyance under control. “I just now met her, and I could see in her eyes that this dress reminds her of something bad.”

“Daphne. . .”

Daphne cut in. “You knew it would affect her. You asked me to wear it on purpose to attack her, to make her upset.”

Jane shook her head, but the way she bit her lower lip told Daphne was right. “She was just intimidated by you. She can't stand not being the prettiest girl in the room.”

“Who's Julianna?” Daphne asked, and Jane's wide eyes then confirmed her suspicion.

“How do you know about her?” Jane asked, tense.

“Luciano said I look like her wearing this dress. He also said she was a friend of his who lived here. I also suspect she didn't get along with Tammy. Am I wrong to think you're using me to attack your sister?”

Jane was speechless.

“How can you be so manipulative? You know my situation is already bad with her, and still you put me in this dress to bring back a bad memory and make everything worse.”

“I'm not manipulative,” Jane said with a cracking voice. She was on the verge of tears.

It was useless to continue talking with her, as Daphne was certain that dress should be back in a bag, hidden in the closet as soon as possible. The moment she turned to leave, Jane started begging for her not to take it off.

“I'm not going to wear it,” she repeated, this time more vehemently, and tried to walk away, but Jane was now desperate and stood on the way to keep her from reaching the door.

“Please, please, please!”

“No. Get out of the way.”

“Daphne, please, she needs to see we're not weak.”

“One thing is to try to look less weak in front of her. Another completely different is to wear something that for sure will offend her.”

“Then just wear it to feel stronger.”

“We both know that isn't the message this dress sends. Now get out of the way!”

“No!” Jane begged.

Two knocks on the door startled them. Daphne was then certain it was Tammy knocking, who probably couldn't keep her wrath controlled any longer and wanted Daphne out of the inn right away.

“Don't open the door,” she murmured to Jane. But it was too late. When she opened the door, Daphne instinctively took a step back, as if the window really was a way out to escape being humiliated by Tammy.

“Dinner is ready,” Caleb told them, and nervously looked from Jane's teary eyes to Daphne's livid expression. “Yes, I overheard what you were saying. No, I don't care, don't want to know why on Earth a dress would make Tammy so upset,” he added.

“Do you think she should continue wearing it?” Jane asked him and pointed at Daphne over her shoulder.

“Yes. And no,” Caleb said. “I think she looks amazing, really, but maybe it would be a better idea to keep her out of Tammy's way.”

The way he stressed the word 'amazing' made Daphne blush. As far as she remembered, in his opinion she was very plain. Ugly, in fact. Feeling suddenly shy, she averted his eyes. She then had another very good reason not to wear such thing any longer: Caleb thought she looked amazing in it. That had to be another bad sign.

“Tammy isn't going to do anything to her,” Jane insisted. “I promise!”

Caleb didn't look like he believed that. “She broke the legs of her bed when Abelard Chase booked the room. This time she could actually go for Daphne's legs!”

Daphne couldn't help thinking, despite the circumstances, that the way Jane's mouth fell open was very comical. And, although she still felt a little uncomfortable around him, somewhere deep inside her she was starting to doubt Caleb really was a bad guy. He had changed for better so suddenly that she didn't know any longer what to think of him.

“She's not going to break her legs. I'm sure she wouldn't,” Jane said.

“Why don't you wear the dress, then?” Daphne said. It was getting on her nerves how selfish Jane was.

“I know for a fact she would break mine,” Jane said, quickly. “I'm serious. She's threatened me before and I need these to dance,” she then slapped her thighs.

“To dance?” Caleb asked with a mocking smile.

“Yes!” Jane said and improvised convincingly good Irish dancing steps. “I've made my mind to be a professional dancer. Daphne, on the other hand, doesn't need her legs. She writes.”

“I guess she's right,” Caleb told Daphne, and the way he looked genuinely convinced scared her. “Let's go. Everyone is in the dining room already.”

Daphne took a few more steps back. “I'm not going anywhere dressed like this,” she said, angry that now it was two against one.

Caleb and Jane exchanged a glance. She was certain they would jump at her and drag her down the steps any time soon.

By the time Jane pushed Daphne in the dining room, her social anxiety had already sky-rocketed. Never before she was so aware of how Tammy bit her lower lip, like Jane often did, in frustration whenever they met, or how Mrs. Frank smiled in admiration when Daphne was around, as if she was a famous artist, or how Mr. Frank now and then looked like he had something to say to her, though never said a word.

Luciano was new to the game of who makes Daphne more self-conscious first, but from the moment, minutes ago, she walked down the steps wearing the dress and he compared her to Julianna – whoever Julianna was – Daphne knew he was a promising player.

“Oh,” he said in surprise when he saw her, and she immediately felt a wave of heat going from her neck up her face. She didn't stop to check whether he looked disappointed or happy to see her again, and with her eyes intently looking at the food on the table, she sat down.

“Where's Caleb?” Mrs. Frank asked, and motioned to get up and go looking for him, but Jane raised a hand to stop her.

“It's all right, Grandma. He's getting downstairs in a minute.”

Mrs. Frank smiled, satisfied, and went back to the conversation she was having with Luciano about the work he had exposed in an art gallery in Ashville.

“How about the others?” Tammy cut in, not as satisfied as her grandmother, though doing her best not to look anxious.

“What others?” Jane asked, and the amusement in her voice was apparent.

The tension in the air was then so palpable that Daphne raised her eyes to Tammy, since she could no longer pretend the bowl of rice pudding in front of her was the most interesting thing in the world.

“Jesse. Ben,” Tammy said with a nervous smile.

“I didn't know you cared for Jesse,” Jane said and crossed her arms over her chest. “What did you used to call him whenever he left the dining room? I can't remember what it was. . .”

Tammy blushed under everyone's stare. “I used to call him a pig,” she said.

“Tammy!” Mrs. Frank said, horrified. “I didn't know you called that poor boy a – such thing!”

She looked at her grandmother trying to find words in her defense, but Andre's laughter was too distracting. Although Daphne disliked her, she felt nervous for her as Tammy juggled between telling her son it was bad to call names and explaining to Mrs. Frank that she never called Jesse anything straight to his face.

“That's even worse,” Mr. Frank told her with a look of disapproval that broke Daphne's heart even though the comment had not been directed at her. “I didn't raise you to say things behind people's backs. I hope you're teaching your son the right thing.”

Daphne had never heard Mr. Frank speak with Tammy so sternly. Jane's eyes were glistening in triumph.

“Of course, I am!” Tammy said and looked at Luciano hoping he would support her, but her husband was immersed in his own thoughts and didn't come to her rescue. “And I didn't mean to offend him. It was just that – just that he always ate so fast and too much. Oh, come on, I know everyone here thought the same way about him. Just because I said what you were thinking, now I'm suddenly a terrible person.”

Mr. Frank shook his head in disapproval and averted his eyes as if Tammy was a lost cause.

“Grandpa!” Tammy shrieked, frustrated, which startled Luciano.

“Don't yell at him!” Jane snarled.

“I'm not yelling,” Tammy snapped back at Jane. “Why is everyone attacking me out of a sudden? All I asked was whether Ben and Jesse would come for dinner?”

“No, dear,” Mrs. Frank quickly said to avoid more problems. “They aren't here anymore.”

Silence reigned as everyone observed Tammy's confused expression, broken only by Luciano's “who's Ben and Jesse?”

“They used to live with us,” Mrs. Frank explained.

“They left? Are they back in the dorms?” Tammy asked, surprised.

“Jesse is,” Mrs. Frank told her, “but Ben left Middleton. Oh, dear, it is so disappointing. I hope his family isn't blaming us for that.”

“What happened? Why did he leave?” Tammy asked, alarmed, and this time she didn't bother trying to conceal her feelings. She was desperate to know where her ex-boyfriend was.

“Not too long after you left, on Halloween, he found the prize and left like everyone else who finds it does,” Mrs. Frank said, and there was a hint of sadness in her voice.

Tammy's face was so transfigured by anguish that Daphne thought the girl would burst into tears right then. Nobody saw how much she was struggling, fighting back the pain she felt within. Only Daphne did, her eyes fixed on Tammy's somber eyes, on the sudden aging of her expression lines, on the trembling tips of Tammy's red curls.

Luciano insisted, amazed that someone so close to them had found the famous Halloween prize he himself had searched for all the years he had lived in Middleton, to know more about Ben. And heard the general thing there was to know about Benjamin Wallace: that he had come from a small town, in fact the same town Daphne Chase had come from. That he was a studious, polite young man. That he was very reserved, almost shy. That everyone loved him and had nothing to complain about his character. That he was a good friend. And, as Mrs. Frank added with a wink, that he was Daphne's special friend.

And then Luciano wasn't asking any more questions, and instead looked at Daphne with a surprised expression, and so did Mrs. Frank. She had been so distracted by Tammy's pained face, that she suddenly wasn't aware of herself anymore. Maybe she had accidentally bumped her hand on her glass and spilled grape juice on the table, or dug an elbow in the rice pudding bowl.

When Andre started pointing and laughing, she realized they were not looking at her, but at something behind her.

Daphne turned and was then greeted by the most extraordinary vision, even more enchanting than everything Apollo had showed her, she had ever seen. Beside her, Jane gasped, and Daphne knew the girl felt the same way.

“I hope you don't mind I'm not wearing shoes,” Caleb said in a forced effeminate voice, and wiggled his toes. “I couldn't find a pair that matched such magnificent dress. The ones I borrowed from Daphne were simply impossible to balance myself on.”

Everyone burst into laughter. Well, everyone but Tammy, who still was oblivious to the world around her, and Daphne, who felt a rush of gratitude for him and could only smile. All that drama involving Tammy had made her forget Caleb had so kindly volunteered to wear the dress, if it really was that important to Jane for someone to show up with it that evening.

Daphne watched him cross the room, and noticed that he should probably avoid any piece of clothing that was so revealing like that dress. Caleb was a very skinny boy. His long-sleeved shirts helped him hide what now everyone there were sure were nothing but cricket's, muscle-less arms.

When he sat at the table, she saw he did his best to hide his bony elbows. He was self-conscious, like she had never seen him look before, but continued smiling, went on encouraging their laughter with self-deprecating comments, explained he was rehearsing for a play, and found an opportunity to teach them about William Shakespeare's time, when only men were allowed to perform and had to dress like women to play female characters.

It was only when the fourth wave of laughter swept through the table that Tammy raised her eyes to Caleb. Daphne was the only one who noticed it, and wanted to warn him that Tammy's eyes shone more and more enraged, but the girl was faster than Daphne's “watch out!”

He didn't bother saying or doing anything as grape juice dripped from his face, down his chin and neck, and soaked the dress and part of the table cloth. Caleb, after all, still considered Tammy his friend, even though she had just then thrown the contents of her cup at him.

Everyone gasped, and then a series of yelling, joined by Andre's crying, filled the dining room. Tammy's face was bright red as she yelled that everyone was against her and accused Caleb of mocking her. He didn't try to defend himself and just concentrated on wiping his face off.

Mr. Frank was furious and disapproved her behavior, and so was Mrs. Frank, but she was too busy trying to calm Andre, who had decided under the table was the best place to wait for the grown-ups' fight to be over. Luciano let slip that she was crazy, which ignited Tammy's cholera even more and triggered a new wave of yelling from her to her grandparents, and back at her from them and from Jane.

“You know what,” she said in tears, “I came here to give you a chance to say goodbye to Andre. We're leaving Middleton to never come back. At first I thought it would be too hard on you to explain we'll never come back, but now I don't give a damn,” she yelled, and after scooping up a struggling Andre from under the table, left the room pulling Luciano along, the Franks behind them demanding explanations.

None of them, but Daphne, saw the single thundering cloud that formed within the inn, spreading in a single gray mass to every single room. At least not with their eyes, but perhaps felt it with their distressed souls. Rain started to pour down in buckets in the Franks' Inn, flooding the place as their family drama went on. No matter where Daphne tried to hide, there was no escaping the lightning bolts striking the furniture around her, the deafening thundering in the house.

She then ran to the backyard, and there she stood with her back resting on the wall, shivering more from anguish than from cold.

Not too long later, the door opened again and Caleb was outside also in need of some quietness. He was surprised to stumble upon Daphne, certain that he would find some privacy in the backyard, and quickly tried to keep a straight, confident face again. He still was wearing the now stained red dress, which made him look even more pitiful.

“Don't worry,” Daphne said when he stood next to her, “I'll keep your secret.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What secret?”

“You're scared.”

Caleb tried to laugh, but only managed to shiver. “Scared? I'm not scared.”

Daphne wasn't going to argue with him. He had done a lot to help her that day. She couldn't help thinking all that grape juice would be all over her now if it weren't for him taking her place.

“I'm afraid too,” she whispered to him. “And cold.”

He looked colder than her, hugging himself much like Esther often did in her nervousness. Gently, Daphne took off her jacket and put it over his naked shoulders.

“Thank you,” he said with a sheepish smile, his eyes fixed straight ahead. “You're such a gentleman.”

“You're welcome,” she said, and they silently stood next to each other, arm in arm to transfer more body heat.

Finally safe and warm in her room, with no rain, no thundering, no yelling from the Franks, Daphne hoped she would finally be able to sleep, but the recent turmoil in the inn left her tossing and turning in bed. Although she mentally repeated to herself that the problems they had were none of her business, she couldn't help feeling completely immersed by them. And, to some extent, guilty. After all, Tammy wouldn't have left Middleton if she had not caught Ben trying to kiss her. They would still be together, and whatever Apollo did to influence either of them to leave, wouldn't have worked, for their attachment to one another would still be strong.

She was, above all, deeply sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Frank. That evening, they had heard an awful share of offenses. They had heard obscenities Daphne, even on the most tempestuous days at her house, had never dared to say to Abelard. Tammy had accused them of raising her only because they felt guilty; and whatever that meant left Mrs. Frank in tears and Mr. Frank's blood pressure was high and they had to ask Dr. Schneider to take a look at him. Daphne knew Tammy and Jane's parents had died and that's why they were raised by their grandparents, but she never knew what had been the cause of their death.

Jane, now more than ever, hated her sister. She called her names and tried a few times to hit her, but Luciano kept the two apart. When they were in the backyard, Caleb and Daphne could now and then see them inside the house, but were too scared to go in and try to help. Both of them were certain if they tried to interfere, things would get worse.

Then, when everything looked like there was no mending that could restore their family bonds, they stopped fighting. Tammy went to Andre's room and locked herself with the boy. Luciano went to Tammy's room. Jane opened the door to Dr. Schneider when he arrived and followed him to her grandparents' bedroom, where she stayed and only left to her room when the doctor left. And, with nobody on the way, Caleb and Daphne could both run to their bedrooms.

It was as if they had spent so much energy in fighting, that everyone quickly drained and could no longer continue that battle. Even Tammy found no strength to leave that night, like she had claimed she would do.

The house had been quiet until then, eerie, like a battlefield where there had been many deaths and the poor souls of the soldiers killed in battle had not yet awakened to life beyond the grave. And then, at exactly 2:00 in the morning, something stirred.

Daphne curled up under her covers. It had been the noise of a door opening.

Footsteps then distanced in the hallway, going away toward the staircase. Daphne held her breath to better hear the sounds coming from the first floor, but they were too muffled.

She hadn't heard, at least, the front door open. For some reason that was a comforting thought.

Another door opened in the hallway, this time in Jane's rushed way of opening her door. Daphne had heard the girl leave her room many other times in the past. It had been Jane, undoubtedly, who had left her room and walked down the hall this second time.

Although she didn't know why, Daphne got out of bed. The puddle on the floor that was Apollo shone under the red glow that the hot air balloon's envelope reflected on the floor. It now looked like a puddle of blood. Daphne had goosebumps at the sight of it.

“Focus on one problem at a time,” she murmured to herself and went on tiptoe to the door.

Carefully, she turned the knob and left her bedroom. To her surprise, the hall was not as dark as she thought she would find it. An orange incandescence coming from the living room, sign that the Franks had left logs burning in the fireplace, left her feeling confident to walk down the hallway without having to turn the lights on.

When she finally reached the top of the staircase, she heard them. She couldn't see them, and although they spoke in hushed voices, she could discern what they were saying. Her heart started beating fast.

“Go away. Leave,” she heard Jane demand.

Daphne felt the blood draining from her face at the thought of a new fight between Tammy and Jane.

“Just leave me alone,” Tammy snapped back, but she sounded more tired than angry.

“You almost killed Grandpa today!”

“Watch your tone, he'll hear you.”

“As if you cared if he did,” Jane said and sounded like she had just then dropped on the couch. Although still belligerent, Jane too was exhausted to fight.

“I care. Why do you think I wouldn't care? I came here to say goodbye to him for the last time. If I didn't care about him, if I didn't care about his health, I'd never have bothered to come back to Middleton.”

Tammy sounded genuinely worried about Mr. Frank, but Jane still mistrusted her. “Yeah, right. You always say that. You said you were leaving forever when you went to Ashville in July. You said the exact same thing when Luciano left you. Sometimes I wonder if you're trying to be the center of attention or if you're just crazy, if that's a mental disease, a social dysfunction of some sort.”

“This time is for real,” Tammy said, calmly. “I now have my husband back and we want to raise Andre away from this craziness.”

“What craziness?”

“This town!” Tammy said, this time raising her voice in exasperation. “These people who do nothing other than gossiping, these students who have a way too high opinion of themselves and in reality have not even a drop of talent, the oppression to be everything else other than what I am, and this. . . this prize that makes whoever gets it leave so quickly, so freely like the rest of us meant nothing to them. What on Earth is that prize?”

Daphne wondered what would be Tammy's reaction if she knew Esther Brown was the prize donor.

“Ah, I see,” Jane said, and sounded like she had found out a secret. “That's why you're behaving like a mad woman.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Tammy said, annoyed.

“You are upset because Ben left Middleton. Because he didn't wait for you. Because he left without even mentioning or name or leaving a letter behind.”

“What? Of course, not!” Tammy said, offended. Daphne remembered, however, the way she looked during dinner when she heard Ben had won the treasure hunt. She looked as if she had been the last person to hear, without any preparation or proper care on the announcer's part, that a dear friend had passed away.

“Yes, you are. You're desperate to know where he is. You still like him, don't you?”

Tammy was silent for a few seconds and then said, confidently, “I do.”

Daphne's mouth fell open. She was expecting Tammy to continue showing indifference, to say that she loved Luciano, that she had a family.

“Why are you making that face? I do like him. I can't deny it any longer. I feel sick I don't know where he is right now. Sick that I'll never see him again now that he found that damned prize!”

She was so anguished that Daphne's heart sank the more she eavesdropped on her. Her throat was dry and her legs were weak, but she felt like going downstairs to tell her she should go talk with Esther. Perhaps, once she knew what the prize was, she would have an idea of where to find Ben.

“Are you insane? Aren't you back with Luciano?” Jane asked, unmoved by her sister's worries.

“That doesn't change what I feel for Ben.”

“You have a problem, did you know that? You like to ruin people's lives. First, you ruined Luciano's and Julianna's, now you're trying to ruin Ben's and Daphne's.”

Daphne's heart skipped a beat when she heard her name.

“Shut up!” Tammy said between her teeth. “Daphne had nothing with Ben. And you know nothing about what happened with Luciano and Julianna.”

“I don't?” Jane said. “Luciano and Julianna were happy before you seduced him and got pregnant. Does that sound like someone who knows nothing about what happened?”

“You don't know what truly happened. You were only eleven!”

“I was only eleven, but I knew what was going on here. I know you got him drunk, and slept with him even though he was Julianna's. Even back then I understood your selfishness had destroyed both of them forever. She was your friend, Tammy. Your friend. How could you do that to a friend? And then you started spreading all those rumors about her, saying that she had gone crazy, that she had to be crazy because she was Esther Brown's granddaughter.”

Daphne had to cover her mouth with both hands to keep herself from gasping. No wonder Tammy hates me so much, Daphne thought. I not only resemble that girl, but also represent a threat to her love life, again, this time with Ben.

“You were too young to understand certain things. It's not like you think. You still are too young to understand any of that.”

“Understand what? That you stole your best friend's boyfriend and doesn't even love him?”

“I'm not the villain here!”

“And who's the villain? Julianna? She had to leave everything behind, her family, friends, she had to give her education up just because of the lies you created and spread about her.”

“Julianna is no saint,” Tammy snarled. “Do you forget I caught both her and the Witch in Andre's room only a month after he was born? Julianna was telling the Witch Andre was her baby and they wanted to take him with them. We had to call the police. Both of them were insane!”

“That's not true.”

“Yes, it is. Jane, you are my sister, for God's sake. Ask Grandma or Grandpa if you don't believe me. They'll confirm what I said.”

“I've heard this story before many times, and I do think Esther and Julianna were in Andre's room, but I think you made up the story about them wanting to kidnap him. Grandpa and Grandma didn't witness Julianna say that Andre was her baby. They never heard her say she wanted to take him. All they did was to respond to your accusation.”

Daphne's heart was pounding so hard in her chest that she thought if someone were sitting next to her would be able to hear it. Without any reason not to believe in Tammy's words, she felt awful the more she got to know about her past. How had she managed to cope with so many problems at such an early age? Had it been her kid what gave her strength? Had it been hope to find love and build a happy family what kept her going?

“How can you hate me so much?” Tammy asked, and the pain in her voice was so great that brought tears to Daphne's eyes.

“Because every time you are around them, you kill them slowly with the mistakes you make. I'm constantly dreading the moment you get near them,” Jane said, sobbing, “because that could be the moment they will drop dead. And then I'll be alone in the world. Even – even if what you say about Julianna is true. . . even if that really happened, even if she went crazy and tried to kidnap Andre, I think you deserved it for stealing her happiness!”

Daphne could not bear listening to them any longer. With Jane and Tammy's weeping chorus behind her, she stood up from the step where she was perched, and hurried back into the corridor.

She almost had a heart attack when she came across Luciano, who was standing in the dark like a ghost in front of Tammy's room. Fortunately, she covered her mouth with both hands to hold back a shriek.

Impassive, he gestured for Daphne to continue walking. Past the shock of meeting him there, she noticed that from that point in the corridor she could still hear Jane and Tammy crying. Not as well as it was from the position where she had been on the staircase, but still could hear them. Daphne didn't know for how long he had been eavesdropping on that conversation.

Again in bed, Daphne couldn't sleep. It felt like something heavy was on her chest. She wanted Tammy and Jane to be done with that meeting on the first floor, she wanted their crying to cease, and wanted no more fights, no more anguish in the inn. She wanted to hear the sound of footsteps on the hallway floorboards and hear doors closing, and know that people were in their rooms' safety. She wanted, more than anything else, to know whether Luciano really wasn't moved by what he overheard, or if it had been just the darkness concealing his feelings.

She then went to her desk and lit the candles Abelard had sent to her to give her room a more romantic atmosphere for writing. Without Apollo's help, because Apollo still wasn't Apollo, she wrote.

The next morning, Daphne woke up with a jolt. Sitting up on her bed, she looked around trying to understand what had just happened. She tried to remember whether she had a bad dream, but nothing occurred to her.

Nothing in the room suggested threat and even Apollo still was a golden, evaporation-proof puddle on her floor. Her head, however, was hurting and her heart was beating fast like something had scared her. Something she still wasn't aware of.

And then she heard it, and was so startled that she jumped out of bed and almost landed on what was left of Apollo. A second terribly loud thundering echoed through the house.

Daphne looked up, but couldn't see the ceiling. Instead, like the day before, there was a mass of gray clouds announcing the arrival of a storm.

“Oh no,” Daphne murmured.

When she felt the first drop of rain on her face, she immediately took off her nightgown and got dressed to go downstairs see what was going on. This time she didn't forget her rain boots. Before leaving the room, she put in her pocket a sealed envelope that was on her desk.

She found Caleb perched on the same step where she had been the night before. His face was livid, and Daphne startled him when she sat next to him, focused that he was on the commotion going on on the first floor.

“Be more reasonable, Tammy,” Mrs. Frank asked in tears, standing on the doorway to keep Tammy, Andre and Luciano from leaving. Jane, her arms around her grandmother's waist, murmured to her to let Tammy leave.

“Grandma, please, we're going to miss the bus,” Tammy said. She looked like she was making a tremendous effort to remain patient. With a cupped hand covering Andre's right ear and pressing his left ear against her chest, she tried to keep him from hearing them. The boy, despite her efforts, already looked scared.

“Stop it, Margaret,” Mr. Frank said, serious, and with an angry gesture asked his wife to get out of the way.

“No. I know this time she won't come back. My heart is telling me I won't see my granddaughter ever again. Like I haven't seen. . . Like I. . .”

And then she burst into tears, and her crying was so anguished that with every sob Daphne thought Mrs. Frank's body would just fall apart on the doorway. Jane probably had the same fear, as the girl would not let go of her.

“Please, don't cry. We'll come back to visit,” Luciano said and looked from Mrs. Frank to Mr. Frank, distressed, and the words choked in his throat. Amid such drama, he didn't know what to do, what to say.

“No,” Tammy abruptly said, and angrily glanced at Luciano. It was a look that said don't say anything else. “We're not coming back to Middleton. Never, ever again. Neither Andre nor I. Much less you, who have memories just as bad as mine.”

Mrs. Frank was then crying so hard, that Mr. Frank had to help Jane pull her out of the way to comfort her.

“Shut up, you ungrateful thing!” Jane shouted at her, and Andre started crying.

“Grandma needs to know the truth so she won't be lying to herself that I'll come back. I hate this place. I came here only to let her see I'm fine with Luciano, that I'll be fine with him and my son, but this will be our last time here.”

Lightning and thundering took over the living room and a heavy rain started pouring down on them. Daphne managed to hide from Caleb that she was frightened by things no one else there could see.

The truth, however, was that even if she had covered her eyes, or her ears, with her hands, in pure terror, he wouldn't have noticed it. To Daphne's surprise, when she glanced at Caleb, she then saw his face was covered with tears. Rain, too. Daphne had never seen him cry. Watching the whole thing on the first floor for him was harder than she had expected.

Without thinking twice, Daphne pulled his hand and interlocked her fingers with his. Her sudden gesture woke him up from his trance, and he looked at his hand slightly confused. For a second, Daphne feared he would immediately pull his hand free and say an offense or two to remind her they were enemies, but he then smiled – a small, sad smile – and gave her hand a little squeeze in gratitude.

He had been right all this time. There was, indeed, courtesy even between two souls that loathed each other.

“If that's what you want, if this will make you happy, then go away,” Mr. Frank said. Although his look was stern, sadness in his voice showed how he truly felt.

“No, Tobias. Don't say that to her,” Mrs. Frank begged, hugging him, but she had no more strength to continue fighting for Tammy to stay. In fact, she looked like she was about to faint.

“Say goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa, and to your aunt Jane too, Andre,” Tammy told her son. In tears, the boy, who was already very nervous and could barely understand why everyone was yelling at each other and looked so sad, tried to push her face away from his.

In a fraction of seconds, Tammy's eyes met Daphne's. Those were the same watery blue eyes she had seen when they first met, months ago on the way to Middleton to the start of everything.

Those months felt like years. So much – way too much, in fact – had happened in their lives. Daphne then realized that all this time she had not been the only one carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Although not officially mutually helping each other, Tammy had been there with her in that arduous task.

“We're leaving,” Tammy said, and then passed Andre for Luciano to hold. “But there's one thing left I need to do before we go away.”

She flew up the steps like a fiery bird, and landed in front of Daphne. They eyed each other with curiosity. Tammy then swung her arm so fast that neither Caleb nor Daphne could stop her. Everyone gasped, and a shower of shouts of indignation fell on Tammy.

The pain from being slapped by Tammy was sharp, but Daphne didn't have time to think about it. The next thing she saw was red hair, Tammy's abundant curls, as her aggressor leaned over to hug her.

“You owed me that, Julianna,” Tammy whispered in her ear, and Daphne was then relieved. She let go of Daphne, and said to Caleb, “I didn't know you were now on her side, traitor,” and then she added with a smile, “thanks for everything.”

The boy nodded, and did his best to smile, but only managed to make a face, tense that he was.

Daphne then remembered what she had in her pocket and quickly handed the envelope to Tammy. “It will help you,” Daphne whispered to her, and Tammy raised an eyebrow as she looked at the envelope, but then put it in her pocket with a smile. “Read it while you're still in Middleton. I promise it will make things better. Well, sort of,” Daphne added, nervous.

Tammy frowned, but smiled again. “All right, time to go,” she said, and the same way she glided up the steps, she went down, quickly picked up her suitcase and Luciano's, and left with him doing his best to follow her closely and keep a struggling Andre in his arms, who just then realized they were saying goodbye and now wanted to stay with his great-grandparents.

The moment she walked out the inn, she said “this is for you, momma!” and vanished, leaving behind Mrs. Frank begging for her to come back and Jane's shouting at the top of her lungs for her to go away.

An hour later, when the turmoil was finally over, Daphne sat on the couch with the feeling she had just then lived an extraordinary experience.

Lost in thoughts, she barely noticed when Caleb sat by her. “Is your face hurting?” He repeated, louder than before, and only then she realized she had been stroking her cheek, absent-minded, right where Tammy had slapped her.

Yes, it was still hurting. But Daphne didn't think she should worry about it, much less Caleb should.

“No,” she lied. “I. . . Hm, I was just wondering why she –.”

Caleb cut in. “Why she said this is for you, momma?”

“Yes,” Daphne said, anxious, and watched Caleb's face become somber as he pondered whether he should tell her what he knew. Once he made up his mind, he glanced at the staircase and then at the corridor that led to the office and dining room to make sure nobody was around. “This is something they don't like to talk about, so keep it just to yourself,” he whispered to her.

Daphne nodded and held her breath for what was to come.

“Tammy's mother was a painter. Yeah, like Tammy herself. But the difference is that she wasn't allowed to paint when she was a teenager. The impression I get is that Mr. and Mrs. Frank were not always the good-natured Grandpa and Grandma we know today. They wanted their kids to be lawyers, engineers, scientists, something completely different from what they wanted to be. I mean, you can't blame them for wishing more to their kids than what Arts could offer. I know my uncle almost died when I told him I wanted to be an actor.”

Daphne was confused. “Wait, did you say kids?”

“I did, but Tammy didn't want to tell me more about her mom's twin. Yes, twin. No idea if the twin is a boy or a girl. Probably a girl, in my opinion. Girls are always oppressed by their parents, no wonder there's feminism. She was an artist, too, but she ran away before they could control her even more and all I know is that she changed her last name to cut relations with them.”

“That's terrible,” Daphne said under her breath, and Caleb nodded. She couldn't picture Mr. and Mrs. Frank being averse to artistic careers. In fact Tammy's paintings were everywhere and they always looked in awe when talking about Daphne's writing. Maybe that was their way of trying to mend things after so many years. Now that she thought of it, Mr. Frank had once said he had made many mistakes in the past.

“Yeah, I hear they are not on speaking terms with this aunt. Or uncle. Anyway, Tammy's mom, Leah, didn't have the same luck to get out of the nest – or should I say, spiderweb? – when she was young. Tammy said it wasn't that she lacked courage to pursue a life as a painter, she was just a good daughter. Her twin was the rebel. She didn't want to disappoint her parents, so she stayed in Middleton, studied political science at McAdams instead of working on her paintings, and that's where she met Arthur O'Brien, an Irish Art History major. And. . . got pregnant.”

“Was she still at school when she got pregnant?”

“In her lovely senior year.”

A rustling noise nearby startled both of them. They heard the door in the dining room open and close, and knew that someone had just then wandered to the backyard. Judging by the noise, it probably was Jane putting the trash in the bins outside, one of her responsibilities at the inn.

“It's all right,” Daphne said, although her heart still was racing, “continue.”

“So,” Caleb said in a whisper that was barely audible, “it was a big scandal, of course. Arthur wanted to marry Leah, but Mr. and Mrs. Frank didn't allow that to happen.”

“She wasn't underage, was she? It's not like they could legally prevent her from marrying him.”

“No, but this girl wasn't the type of person who did things against her family's will, even if she was protected by law to act differently. They wanted her to finish school, said they would help her raise the baby. After Tammy was born, they started pushing her to go to Law School.”

“How about Arthur? What happened to him?” Daphne asked, frustrated. It angered her to think that Leah Frank had so many people interfere in her life.

“He lingered in Middleton for as long as he could. I think he waited for Leah to change her mind until Tammy was born, and then realized that no matter what he did, she couldn't be with him. He could have used Justice to claim paternity of Tammy and tried to stay in the country, but for some reason he didn't and had to go back to Ireland.”

“What?” Daphne asked in a high pitch. Caleb gestured for her to be quiet. “I'm sorry,” she said in a whisper, “but it's awful to think he went away without his family.”

“I know. I think Mr. and Mrs. Frank didn't think the guy actually loved Leah. Tammy said she remembers an occasion when, as a kid, she overheard them saying that Arthur was an opportunist trying everything to get easy money.”

“They thought he was interested in her just because of her money? That's ridiculous!”

Caleb had to gestured once again for her to be careful with her tone of voice. “I think Jane is in the backyard, and if she goes around the house, she'll be able to hear us. That would be bad. By now, you probably realized that she sides with her grandparents in everything.”

Daphne rubbed her forehead in a poor attempt to alleviate a headache that was getting increasingly more painful.

“So, as I said, he left,” Caleb continued, “and Leah stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Frank, who made her apply to go to Law School. The ironic part, though, was that none of the schools she applied to accepted her. Maktub. It's written in her destiny she was a painter, not a lawyer. So, she worked here as a manager for a few years, until Arthur came back.”

Daphne had to cover her mouth with her hands not to let out a squeak of happiness.

“Tammy said her mother was beyond herself with joy. I mean, despite complying with her family, she still loved him. She was so surprised he had not given up, that she then decided to fight for them and ran away with him. Of course, she brought Tammy along. Mr. and Mrs. Frank found them some time after Jane was born,” he said, and couldn't help laughing. “They couldn't believe Leah had had another baby, so soon, of this man they loathed. Oh well. That same day, they had a terrible fight, perhaps like one of those things we saw yesterday and today, and when Mr. and Mrs. Frank left, Leah and Arthur went after them to try to mend things and. . . You know what comes next.”

Daphne nodded. It was then that the car accident happened. The car crash that took Leah's and Arthur's lives and left Tammy and Jane orphans.

“So, I believe she said this is for you, momma, because she was going against her grandparents' will and leaving home at an earlier age than her mother had done it. Maybe, and just maybe, if Leah had stood up for herself when she was younger, none of that would have happened to her,” Caleb said, and his eyes glistened. “They'd all be in Ireland, perhaps.”

“Do you think she's fighting to stay with Luciano, then?” Daphne wondered, and couldn't help feeling strange at the thought of him standing in the corridor the night before, his face as still as a statue's, overhearing his wife's conversation.

Caleb's face distorted as if he was trying something very sour. “You know, Daphne, I'm not sure about Tammy and that guy. To be honest I don't think she likes him, and even their story is obscure to me. I don't think her getting pregnant and then marrying him was really out of love, but then only those two know the truth. I find it really strange that they want to stay together now.”

“I think their coming back here was all a farce,” Daphne let slip, and Caleb's eyes widened in surprise.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” she said, and then hesitated. “Well, I overheard things I probably shouldn't have heard. But it sounded like they had planned everything to make it look like they were together. All in her grandparents' eyes, though, because I also overheard when she told Jane she still loved Ben. I really don't know what's going on, but after they went out that door it wouldn't surprise me that they took different paths.”

“She told me she wanted to go to the end of the world, if that's what was necessary for her to be who she wants to be,” Caleb said with a sad smile.

Daphne felt a pang.

“Why would she say something like that?”

“I don't know. She told me that earlier this morning. I didn't ask her why, but she looked quite determined to go to the end of the world, whatever that means. Those were her words.”

Daphne suspected that even Tammy didn't know what meant. It was not her idea. It was Apollo's. Or, rather, Daphne's wish to send her far, far away.

“Are you Okay?” Caleb asked her, and Daphne quickly nodded.

“Yes. . . I – I just feel strange. There's a lot going on. Again.”

“I know,” Caleb agreed. “But, it's not all that bad. See, now we don't hate each other that much. And we're square, too. I'm keeping one of your secrets. And you're keeping one of mine.”

He was right, and the recognition of such improvement in their poor relationship left her blushing. In fact, they had never had a conversation so civilized like that before. On Halloween, when Marie left, he supported her for the first time, but she accepted his shoulder to cry on just because she really needed someone at the time, and he was the only one there.

There, chatting in secrecy in the Franks' living room, to the untrained eye they could almost have passed as friends.

“Indeed,” Daphne said with a smile. She couldn't help thinking that Jane and Ben had told her before that he wasn't the bad guy she thought him to be, and wanted to tell him that she now agreed with them, but then that was too much.

Caleb's smile was sheepish. She had never thought of him as a shy guy. Perhaps, all this time he had been trying his best to look more confident and superior to her. He had hated her so much for the way she had treated Ben, and now that they were getting closer he allowed himself to now and then give her a glimpse of his weaknesses.

“I'm curious,” he said, “what was that envelope you gave to Tammy?”

“I think she wants to find Ben. So, I wrote down what I knew about the prize he found, and his address in Lavinia.”

One of Caleb's eyebrows went up. “What do you know about the prize?”

“Not much. I know, though, who the mysterious donor is. She wanted to tell me what the prize was, and where to find it, but I didn't want to know. If only I had said yes, and went looking for it, Ben would still be here. . .”

Caleb shook his head. “Unlikely. He wanted to leave. He'd do it with or without that prize. But, who is the prize donor?”

“Esther Brown.”

“The Witch?” He asked, forgetting to keep his voice low. He then arched his back in nervousness he had attracted attention to them, and looked over his shoulder at the window. Jane was nowhere to see. She probably had gone for a stroll after disposing the thrash bags in the dumpster.

“Esther,” Daphne repeated.

“Yeah, right. But, are you sure?”

“She told me she was the one giving out the prize every year.”

Caleb crossed his arms over his chest and looked incredulous the more he thought about Esther being the prize giver. “She also says she can fly. A few days ago, in fact, I saw her running down College Avenue flapping her arms like they were wings and screaming that she could fly,” he said, and laughed at the memory of her.

A quick glance at her own wings told Daphne she had no right to laugh with him. Like Esther, Daphne also thought she could fly.

“Maybe she is crazy,” Daphne said, serious, “but that doesn't mean she couldn't be the person hiding a prize every Halloween for the people here to find. Next year, if there isn't a prize, then you'll know she was telling the truth, because Esther told me this year would be the last one there would be the treasure hunt.”

He frowned. “All right. If you say so. And you too will know she was telling the truth.”

Daphne rubbed her forehead, and averted his eyes.

“Daphne?” He asked, sensing she was hiding something from him. “You're coming back next year, aren't you?”

“I don't know,” she said. “Look, how late it is, I should probably go back to my room to do some writing.”

She stood up, but he pulled her back.

“What? Are you going to give your education up like Ben did just because things didn't go as he had planned out? Yeah, we gave you a hard time, but you know you deserved most part of it. The rest was just to add some flavor to your days here. But, in the end, look at how you've grown stronger, and we don't need to kill each other anymore. You're just going to abandon everything you've built here so far?”

Daphne looked at his eyes, and they sparked with frustration and genuine care for her. He almost resembled Marie. Only Marie would have said those words to her.

“Why are you so loyal to your friends?” Daphne asked out of a sudden, even though she barely knew why she was asking him that question.

Caleb blinked, surprised. “You think I'm loyal to my friends?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I guess I am, then,” he said and blushed. “And, I don't know why. Aren't we all loyal to our friends? Don't we all want to be what Lancelot was to King Arthur? Friends are the best things we have. The best thing someone could treasure. We need to fight to keep them, to defend them, to be there for them.”

“That's true.”

Daphne smiled, and they stared at each other proudly observing the world of possibilities they had encountered. It was as if they were meeting each other for the first time. Although they lived under the same roof, Daphne realized she knew nothing about his life, where he had come from, whether he had any siblings, what his motivations to come to college had been.

She wanted to ask him, to make sure she wouldn't waste any more time and start, once and for all, making friends in Middleton since Marie had left, but the door flung open and both of them jumped to their feet with a jolt. Cold air blew in, and with it Jane in the saddest state they had ever seen her.

“What happened?” He asked Jane, alarmed, and guided her to the couch.

Jane was crying a lot, her face very red and already swollen, and could barely speak.

“What happened?” Caleb insisted, and shook her by the shoulders. Daphne gently pushed him away from the girl. He was too nervous to deal with her at the moment.

“Jane,” she said, softly, “did someone hurt you?”

Sobbing, Jane shook her head. Daphne glanced over her shoulder at Caleb, and he looked relieved.

“She needs a glass of water,” Daphne suggested, and Caleb immediately ran to the kitchen. When he came back, Jane drank it with difficulty. Daphne sat beside her on the sofa and Caleb knelt before her to make her feel supported. Both of them didn't say a word and waited for her to naturally stop crying.

“I. . . I am terrible,” Jane said in tears.

Confused, Daphne and Caleb looked at each other. “You are not terrible. Who called you that?” Caleb asked, and Daphne gave him a look for him to be less aggressive. “You are not terrible, Jane,” he repeated, this time in a more gentle manner.

“Yes, I am!” She said, raising her voice, and a new wave of tears washed her face.

Footsteps on the second floor reminded them that Mr. and Mrs. Frank could end up overhearing them. “Your grandparents,” Daphne said, her eyes raised to the living room's ceiling.

To her surprise, Jane shrugged. She had never acted so carelessly about them. In fact, until an hour ago she fiercely advocated for protecting them against everything that was worrisome.

“What happened?” Caleb asked, and his frown suggested that he also thought Jane's gesture strange.

“I met Tammy at the bus station,” Jane said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hands.

“Ah, Jane, did you go after her to continue fighting? Wasn't everything that happened here these last hours enough?” Caleb asked, annoyed.

“No!” Jane said, nervous. “I mean, I went there because I still had a lot in my head that was torturing me and I needed to ask her a few questions, but when I got there –,” she paused, and more tears sprung.

“What did you see?” Daphne asked, calmly, and held Jane's hand.

“Only Tammy and Andre,” Jane said. “Only Tammy and Andre,” she repeated, and her voice was weak with sorrow. “Can you believe that. . . Can you believe that she had to pay for him to come here? My sister is now alone in the world with her son.”

Daphne hugged Jane as she cried, and over the girl's shoulder she gave Caleb a significant look. The severity in his eyes matched in intensity the anger she felt. As they had suspected, Tammy and Luciano's coming back to the inn to show how happy they were together had been a farce.

“Please, don't cry anymore. What did Tammy tell you?” Daphne asked.

Jane then told them the best way she could what she had found out. She confessed that she had never given any value to Tammy, who she always had considered to be a liar and a selfish girl, even more when she got involved with Luciano. Before Tammy got pregnant, Luciano was in a serious relationship with Julianna Brown, and the three of them had been good friends until then.

She told them that watching Tammy get back together with Luciano left her furious, because she thought he didn't deserve to be stuck with her. But, when she didn't see him at the bus station, she realized there was something wrong.

“I asked her, 'where is your husband?' and she came up with a story that he needed to go buy something, and at first she wouldn't tell me what, then she said he went to buy cookies for Andre. I thought all that was very weird, so I stayed there waiting for him to come back. I wanted to tell him he shouldn't be with her. And then. . . Andre told me his dad had already left on a bus. And that boy doesn't lie. That boy has nothing of his parents' personality,” Jane said, her eyes fixed on the logs burning in the fireplace, uncomfortable to tell that story looking at Daphne and Caleb.

“So, she had to tell me the truth. She never loved Luciano, and he never loved her. And the truth is that they were never together, not even when they got married. In fact, she had to beg him to marry her. And he did. . . because he had to. He only came here yesterday because she asked him a favor. A favor she had to pay for, of course, in cash. She wanted to show Grandma and Grandpa that they shouldn't worry about her, because she was back with her husband, because her son was going to grow up with a father around.”

“The worst thing,” Jane said, and began to cry harder, “was knowing what he did to her when she was sixteen. What – what he did to her. . . Oh God, she should have told someone. He was drunk and. . . and then. . . She said he claimed he thought she was Julianna when he entered her room that night. Why did he do that to her?” Crying convulsively, Jane could no longer speak.

Daphne didn't know what to say. Caleb stood up and walked up to the window with a dazed expression. Tammy and Luciano's story was more complicated than they had imagined. Daphne couldn't understand why Tammy had never told her family what had happened.

Without her mother, without her father, with a sister still going through her sweet, unforgettable childhood years, and grandparents whose health was already fragile, Tammy must have felt so alone and helpless in the world. Without anyone to guide her, anyone to tell her she wasn't to blame for what had happened, she made the worst decision, and still was able to stay firm and deal with the consequences of keeping that terrible secret.

“Don't cry,” Caleb said, suddenly, and his eyes sparked with the fury he was struggling to keep tamed within. “She's not anymore with that –,” and then he paused to hold back the name he was going to call Luciano. “She's not anymore with that guy. She will find happiness elsewhere.”

“She is alone,” Jane said, sobbing. “How could she be happy alone? I wanted to leave Middleton with her, but she said she needed to go just with Andre. She said that now and then people get the urge to go far away, but made me promise I wouldn't listen to my own urges and stay in Middleton, keep this secret, and take care of Grandma and Grandpa. I said I would. When I think she hid this story just to protect us. . . I hate Luciano. If I see him again, I'll kill him with my own hands. And. . . and. . . I'm the worst person in the world! How have I not seen the truth earlier?”

“Stop saying that,” Caleb said. He touched Jane's chin and lifted up her head for her to look him in the eye. “What happened in the past, we can't change. Try to think that the present will be better for her.”

“But there are many dangers in the world, especially if you're alone,” Jane said.

“There's danger following us whether we're alone or in group. That's just how things are. But Tammy is strong, she has Andre to take care of, and that will keep her fighting. Do you want to ask the Ouija board like we used to do? The ghosts will confirm what I'm saying,” he said with a smile. “And the same mindset goes for you, for me, and for Daphne. Let's hold on to the things that matter the most for us, and continue moving forward.”

Daphne nodded. But what mattered the most to her, she didn't know. Was it her book? The friends she had made in Middleton? Her family? Daphne was confused. But on that fateful day, filled with sad revelations, she felt she wasn't the same Daphne who had left the town of Lavinia months ago. For better or for worse, she had changed. And change, at least in Daphne's world, was an exotic delicacy.

From the bottom of her heart, Daphne hoped Tammy would find Benjamin, and the two of them would live together the happy ending they longed for and deserved.

Chapter 16
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Daphne's hand froze only a few inches from the telephone in the Franks' office. She had been stalking it, peeking at it for two weeks now, whenever she found the door ajar on the way to the dining room. Since the day Tammy left, for a reason she couldn't understand, her father was in her thoughts. And not only him. But also her mother and her brothers. And even her deceased grandmother. She missed them all. And felt a pang whenever she thought about them.

But she couldn't call them. She couldn't call home and hear Abelard ask in his half mocking, half drunken voice, “how is your writing?” She had not finished her book. She had no complete project to show him she had been right in coming to college. If she called him with her hands empty, she was going to be to him – although she felt different – the same Daphne who had left his house months ago.

She sat down in the office, still staring at the telephone, feeling a little queasy. It was difficult to fight the urge to call them.

The must-call-them-now stage went from feeling excited by the door as she peeked in the room, then bravery kicked in and she ran to the desk certain she should dial her home phone number. But, before she could reach the telephone, a freezing cold wind would stop her hand in midair and she would remain staring at the numbers, like a statue, until the strength in her legs gave in and she dropped in the chair feeling as nauseous as when she had to give a presentation in front of her classroom.

It hadn't been different today. Except for. . . except for a hollowness she had not felt in past occasions. Perhaps the small Christmas tree on the desk, which had not been there yesterday, Daphne was sure, triggered something different in her. It would be Christmas in just five days and she still had not talked with her family since the day she left home. Worse than that, her family hadn't tried to contact her since she had left them.

How could they not have called her? There was no way they could have known she didn't want to talk with them. There was no way they could have known she had dropped her cell phone in front of her house on purpose. She was their kid, they should have bothered to make a call, at least once, to make sure she wasn't in need of assistance, to make sure college life was treating her well.

Daphne could picture Abelard locking the phone away. He was mad she had left, and perhaps didn't want to contact her, didn't want the rest of the family to show support. Perhaps he wanted her to be the first to make a call. Her mother's tears would have been painful for him to watch as she certainly pleaded to call her daughter, but she knew that his stubbornness was hard to break. And, in the end, her mom always gave up and remained loyal – or, like Daphne often put it, subservient – to him.

The day she left Lavinia to come to Middleton felt like the best decision she had ever made her in her life.

Her father was always drunk, and had nobody other than her to tell him he had to stop acting like a spoiled teenager. The books he wrote awed the world to the point no one cared if he didn't let his family sleep with his loud music at 5:00 in the morning, that he made his wife's and kids' lives miserable with his crying and accusations that nobody loved him, that his aversion to talk with people other than his publisher, family and a close circle of old friends was turning into a phobia to get outside the house – phobia, in fact, that he wanted his family to share with him.

As long as he kept writing, nobody dared tell him to change his lifestyle. That's all the world cared about: getting his books, and nothing else about him mattered.

Not even Daphne's mother ever told him to quit drinking and seek a psychologist for support.

Just the thought of her unhealthy devotion to a man like Abelard brought tears to Daphne's eyes. Daphne knew that Abelard, the Genius, was not the man she was serving; which was even worse, because at least she could have passed as a woman who loved literature to the extent of sacrificing her own happiness. It was Abelard, her husband, who kept her in Lavinia.

Glenda had allowed her love for him – love that wasn't love, it was enslavement of her senses and sabotaging of her right to find a true partner, and duty to give her kids a happy home – to root her to infertile ground. She had deliberately remained with a man who saw in her nothing but a secretary. And every day Daphne saw her parents were still together, she felt terrible, as she couldn't help wondering why.

How could the decision to leave that household not have felt like a good one? It had been perfect. It was more than a chance to start a career as a writer. It actually was a unique opportunity to start a brand new life away from everything that saddened and frustrated her as a daughter. Away from Lavinia, she was nobody's daughter. She belonged just to herself.

But, even after mentally listing the reasons why she should feel happy, or at least relieved she had left them to never come back, she felt empty inside. Awfully hollow. Lonely. She was lonely. Desperately lonely.

The feeling was so physical, that she could have swore something was mercilessly squeezing her heart to open more space in her chest. It was painful. Unbearable.

Daphne hugged her legs against her body, rested her forehead on her knees, and cried her first tears of true, painful homesickness. Crying, to her surprise, then turned into convulsive sobbing. She realized it wasn't just her heart hurting, it was her soul, too. Her soul ached like never before. Until then, she didn't know it could hurt so much. She didn't know that it could desperately long to be in a place she didn't want to see again, to be with people she knew she had to avoid to live a better life.

The thought of Abelard not wanting to talk or see her, as well, pained Daphne even more. He was her father. He should have called the inn looking for her, after all he had put her there. Had booking that room and sending his books been his way of saying hello, his way of saying he cared for her?

It then occurred to her that she should have called him back when he booked it, even if it was just to yell at him for intruding in her life. Perhaps, Abelard had expected her to say something, and is now heartbroken that all he got from his daughter was silence. Silence, the most dreaded reply.

She eagerly reached for the telephone in front of her on the desk, but her hands were trembling too much and she accidentally dropped it on the floor when she pulled it closer to her. Famished to hear his voice, she knelt by the telephone and had just then dialed the first numbers, when the door opened.

Startled, Daphne quickly turned. When she saw him, she gasped, instinctively dragging herself away from him. “Dad?” She said, unable to believe in her own eyes.

Abelard Chase was standing on the doorway, strangely dressed like he belonged in the nineteenth century – though, considering his eccentric personality, that really wasn't a surprise – and holding a crystal glass of wine to his lips.

“Dad?” Daphne repeated. She quickly stood up and wiped off the tears from her face. She didn't want him to know she was weak, and rummaged in her mind in search of a good excuse to explain what he had already seen of her in that lamentable state. “What are you doing here?” She asked, nervously, barely holding back the urge to run to him and flung her arms around his waist in a desperate hug.

He looked at her with a dazed expression and took another sip of wine. It was like he couldn't see her, though, despite her being there only a few inches away from him in the office.

“When – when did you get here? Is Mom here too? The boys?” She asked, and tried to peek over his shoulder hoping to see Glenda, Kyle and Chris standing in the living room.

Again, he didn't say a word. His wine, like usual, was more interesting to him than replying to Daphne's anxious questions. When he was done drinking, he crossed the office – practically glided, his steps so soft and whimsical that the floorboards didn't squeak under his weight – and sat behind the desk, where Tammy had sat the day Daphne was checking in.

As if he knew that desk and what he would find in each drawer, he opened one of them and took the book Tammy had left there. The one book Daphne so abhorred. Her book, in fact.

When Daphne was only twelve, Abelard found her short stories and got them published, behind her back, as a short story collection on being young. That simple, little book took the literary world by surprise back then. It turned out Abelard Chase's daughter was a genius as well.

They praised her, loved her stories – memorized every single word, discussed them, approached them from every single angle and said everything there was to say, and a bit more, about them – like they loved her father's.

Little they knew, however, how she loathed that book and wanted to destroy every single copy out there with her own hands, if she could. Because those were not mere short stories a young writer catalogs in a notebook to hone the craft and feed the dream of one day becoming a published author. The red notebook Abelard had found under her pillow wasn't just her composition notebook. It was her personal journal.

The stories he read and decided they needed to be published were not short stories. Those were her secret impressions on the life she lived and the people she knew, their names and her own changed in case someone ever got a hold of those pages.

What a shock had been for her when Abelard announced one morning her short stories had been published. The notebook had disappeared for a few days, she had searched for it day and night afraid she had misplaced somewhere others could easily find it and read it, and then she found it back again under her pillow, and could only think that maybe the thousand times she had searched there had been just a dream. She wanted to die. The world was going to read her most intimate thoughts, and she couldn't stop them saying those were private. It was best to let them think it was all fiction. And that's how Daphne got her title as literary prodigy at the age of twelve, a deep phobia of journals and short stories, and an eagerness to write a novel, something entirely fictitious. She wanted to write a book and switch everyone's attention from her secrets to something that was entirely made up by her. She wanted a story so good that it would make people forget that Daphne's Book, her short story collection, once existed.

“What are you doing?” She asked, this time raising her voice, as Abelard opened the book in a random page and started reading it. She couldn't help feeling angry whenever she saw him read that book.

He ignored her. Daphne walked up to him, and gently took the book from his hands and place it closed on the desk.

“Why aren't you talking with me?” Her voice was trembling. She stiffened her back to look more confident, but a few stubborn tears kept springing from her eyes, no matter how much she tried to keep her face dry, and ran down her cheeks. “Dad, look at me!” She yelled at him.

Abelard slowly raised his eyes to her. He still was silent and absent-minded, but it felt like he was giving her a chance to listen to what she had to say.

Daphne took a deep breath to build up courage. “Look,” she said, finally, “I know you are disappointed in me. I know you didn't want me to come to Middleton, but here I am, and I'm doing fine. I'm done with classes, I have a 4.0 GPA and my professors like my writing. There's this one professor, he's my adviser, professor Lawrence Steinberg, who is a published writer. Did you read Isadora? People love it. I really like it too, and I think you'd love to read it. And love to meet professor Steinberg as well. See, Dad, it's not like you said it would be. Nobody said I couldn't be a writer. They, in fact, encourage me to continue.”

He blinked, his gray eyes – the same color of Daphne's – very faintly shining. It was like all life had been sucked away from him.

“And I wrote a book,” she continued, then unable to hold back the tears from meeting him again, “and all I need to do is write the ending. But I'm mostly done with it. I want you to read it, Dad. Okay? And, I'm sorry I haven't called all these days. I needed to stay alone. But, Dad, I missed you so much,” she started sobbing. “I missed you so, so much. I'm sorry I couldn't be the daughter you wanted me to be. I couldn't stay in Lavinia any longer, it was – it was suffocating me. D-dad, may I hug you? I so need your hug right now. You have no idea what I've been through, how scared I felt. I need you. P-please, may I hug you?”

Daphne outstretched her arms to Abelard, crying, and waited for him to repeat her gesture and let her in his arms. But, through her teary, blurred eyesight all she saw was a catatonic, indifferent Abelard looking at her like nothing of what she said mattered to him.

Being ignored by her father was worse than everything she had endured in Middleton. It was the worst, most terrible feeling she had ever experienced. It was like being abandoned and losing her identity, losing any trace of herself in the world, now that her own family wouldn't claim her.

Daphne covered her face with both hands to muffle her sobbing, but it still echoed in the office.

She wanted to run away from him, go to a place where nobody would find her, and disappear from his life once and for all. But her legs were frozen, glued to the floor. And, despite her fear of telling him how she felt about him, she knew she couldn't just walk away without asking for a second chance.

“Please, don't hate me,” she begged, struggling to speak and catch her breath after hyper-ventilating. “I left because. . . because I needed to write something other than this book here. . . and. . .”

Daphne stopped as Abelard reached for the book once again. He opened it, and took a folded sheet of paper that Daphne didn't know was in it. When he handed it to her, she didn't know what to expect, but accepted it eager that was a rare acknowledgement of her presence.

When she unfolded it, she saw it was a document with Mr. and Mrs. Frank's names on it. “What is it?” She asked, but he didn't have to explain. She read a few more lines and realized that was a birth certificate. The birth certificate of one of their kids.

She quickly searched for Tammy's mom's name, but instead of Leah's name, she read Albert Samuel Frank. It was Leah's twin's birth certificate.

“How did this end up in the book you sent to the Franks?” Daphne asked, and was a little surprised by her father, who then rose and with his forefinger indicated a blotch of black ink next to Albert's name.

Daphne squinted her eyes at it. She had dismissed it as an accident with a fountain pen, but her father wanted her to pay closer attention to it. Daphne looked at it intently trying to understand what the pattern represented.

And then she gasped.

“Is this –,” she said, and hesitated. She looked at the blotch again. It was a blurry handwritten thing next to Albert's typed one. A name. “Is this your birth certificate?” Daphne asked, alarmed. “Dad, are you Albert Samuel Frank?”

When she reached for his hand, he then exploded into a cloud of bright, purple smoke that quickly dissipated in the air and vanished. Daphne shrieked in fear and jumped back, but ended up tripping on the rug under the desk and fell on her back.

“Are you Okay?” She heard Caleb's voice behind her and his laughter, although he sounded like he was struggling to hold it back, as he helped her get back on her feet.

Daphne couldn't blame him for laughing at her. She knew she probably had looked pretty ridiculous shrieking and tripping on the rug like that.

“I'm. . . Yes, I'm Okay,” she said, her eyes fixed on the spot where only a few seconds ago her father had been. Even the glass he had left on the table had disappeared. She couldn't believe she hadn't realized it had been just a vision. Although she was upset she had not been able to tell the difference between reality and imagination, she also felt relieved.

It had not been him. There was hope, still, that one day she'd be able to mend her relationship with her father.

“All right,” Caleb said, still laughing. When she finally turned to him, he abruptly stopped. “Were you crying?” He asked, surprised.

Daphne was then aware that her face probably looked terrible, bright red and swollen, and instinctively tried to cover part of it with her hair, which she had been keeping loose since the day she wore the infamous red dress that looked like one of Julianna's.

“No, I'm fine,” Daphne said and tried to walk away, but Caleb then pulled the birth certificate from her hand. She wouldn't have noticed she still was clinging to it, if he hadn't snatched it from her.

Truth, however, was that after realizing her father's visit was just a product of her imagination, she was starting to think it also wasn't real that he was the Franks' estranged kid who had changed his name.

“What is this? Did something written here make you cry?” He asked, and held the document away from her, anticipating she would jump at him to get it back.

“Give it back to me,” Daphne said, her tone of voice tired. She was already too drained to fight.

“If it didn't make you cry, then you won't mind if I read it,” Caleb said, defiantly.

Daphne assessed the situation. There was a chance that, in reality, what he had in his hands was nothing but a blank sheet of paper her mind had tricked her to think was something important. There was, also, a very good chance it was, indeed, Albert Frank's birth certificate. And, finally, the remote, strange possibility Caleb would find Daphne's dad's name handwritten in blank ink, blotched by a drop of water, next to Albert's.

She didn't want to believe that third possibility was possible.

“Then go ahead,” she said, and he then hesitated. “Read it,” she insisted. Whatever that sheet of paper truly represented, she didn't think Caleb reading it meant a threat to her.

He was, after all, particularly good at keeping secrets.

Caleb looked from her to the book on the desk. She knew he had recognized it as her short story collection. Most people did. He then glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand and looked suspicious of it.

“Are you sure I can read it?” He asked, now afraid that his mischief to read something he had judged to be private would then explode in his hands.

Impatient, Daphne pulled the document back, unfolded it, and held it in front of his eyes. She closed her eyes and held her breath as he read it, nervously waiting to hear his reaction.

“Wow –,” he said, then hesitated. Daphne sighed. “Does this mean that –,” he paused, again, scratching his head.

Daphne looked at the birth certificate herself and saw her father's name next to Albert's.

“Did you see this blurry name here?” She asked and showed him the blotch.

“I did, and I think that is –.”

“My father's name.”

“So. . . I guess that makes you. . . Hm, that is really bizarre, but it turns out you're Tammy's and Jane's cousin. And. . . Wow. . . You're Mr. and Mrs. Frank's granddaughter!”

“Not so loud. Be careful,” Daphne whispered to him.

Caleb then ran to close the door. Meanwhile, Daphne sat on the floor with her back on the wall. She sat holding her head with her hands, feeling to dizzy to remain standing. When Caleb turned to her, he was surprised to see her in such state.

“You're not Okay, are you?” He asked, and sat with his legs crossed in front of her.

Daphne shook her head.

“Was it a big surprise?” He asked, uncertain. “What, I know it was a surprise, but maybe you knew something that sort of, remotely, who knows, indicated that your father. . . Ah, forget it, of course it was a big surprise, you even fell back when you found it. Literally.”

She couldn't help laughing, and he joined her. If only I could tell him I saw my father, she though to herself, and gave her head a little shake to clear her thoughts.

“Yes, it was a big surprise,” she said, and looked at the birth certificate once again. “Not in a million years I'd have imagined he was their kid. I mean, it all makes sense now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, now I know why I ended up here. Did you know my father booked a room for me here without asking for my permission? I mean, how could he have known about the Franks' Inn? He probably was trying to reconnect with them through me, I guess.”

Caleb frowned. “You know, that's not the story I heard about how, why you moved in here.”

“What did you hear?”

“Tammy said your father called saying you requested that he booked a room to you here.”

“What?” Daphne asked, her voice raising. “I wouldn't have done that. I'm not on speaking terms with him. I haven't spoken with him, in fact, since I left home. If he said that, he lied.”

“Relax. You know how Tammy is. Maybe she lied. Or. . . I don't know, maybe he did say that, trying to hide the real reason behind his calling. Maybe, I don't know, he didn't want to sound like he was the one who wanted you to move here, instead of you asking him to book the room because you saw the inn and liked it better than the dorms.”

Daphne rubbed her forehead, confused. “What I don't understand is, if they are not on speaking terms, what made him build up the courage to call?”

“I don't know.”

“And how did this end up here?” She said, and held up the birth certificate.

“Where did you find it?”

“In a copy of Daphne's Book, the one that he sent to them when I moved here.”

Caleb glanced at the book on the table. “Then I think he sent it to them in the book. Maybe he was trying to say to them, 'hey, this is still me, your lost son'.”

“Oh my Gosh, then do you think they know it? I mean, all of them? Mr. and Mrs. Frank, Jane and Tammy?”


Daphne let out a little shriek. She didn't care if someone heard it. It would be better, actually, if they did hear her and came check what was going on, so she could confront them and demand to know the truth.


“I don't care. Let them hear me. I want them to tell me why they kept the truth from me. They lied to me. I feel so ridiculous now. I mean, I've been all this time here and nobody told me I was related to them,” she said, and was rubbing her forehead so vigorously that she accidentally cut her forehead with a fingernail.

Caleb saw when blood sprung from the wound, and caught her wrist. “Stop doing that. And, listen to me,” he said in a whisper, “nobody lied to you. First of all, we're just speculating here. The truth you'll hear from your father when you ask him what this means, and only if you want to ask him. Secondly, that name could have been written even by someone here, someone wondering if Albert Frank could now be Abelard Chase. Abelard, after all, is a famous guy. Now, if all this means Abelard really is Albert, then people didn't lie to you about it. They just kept the information from you, which is different.”

“But, Caleb. . .”

“But what? No, really, if I were you, I wouldn't freak out,” he then took a handkerchief from his pocket, and gently pressed it against Daphne's forehead to stop the bleeding. It stung, but she managed to keep a straight face. “This piece of paper here means nothing, you should forget it, unless you want to be Daphne Frank.”

She didn't.

“I don't know what to do,” she sighed.

Caleb shook his head. “Don't do anything, then. Just let it be. Maybe in the future things will be clear. For now, just be yourself. Just be Daphne Chase.”

Daphne frowned. Her afternoon had been terrible up until that moment. Up until that quick, honest conversation with Caleb Deheeger. She'd never have thought that his words would have had such a healing influence on her.

“I guess you are right,” she said, finally, and tucked the birth certificate back in the book.

“I've never read your book,” Caleb said, as he observed Daphne put the book back in the drawer. “Are you really the genius people say you are?”

“No,” Daphne said. “And, don't read it.”

“Why not? I want to know how good you are.”

“I'd tell you why. I guess I would. But, that would mean for you to keep another of my secrets.” She then gave her head a little shake. “What am I saying?” She mouthed to herself.

Caleb took a step closer to her, his smile widening. “Are you starting to trust me?”

“No,” Daphne said, sharply.

“Yes, you are. You are. What made you change your mind about me?”

She turned away from him to hide her face. She was blushing.

“I – I didn't. I still think you're the same,” she lied.

“Yeah, right,” he said in a jovial tone. “Come on, I know you want to tell me something. What is it? I won't tell it to anyone.”

Maybe it had been his eyes. Those now endearing eyes he squinted when thinking too hard, and widened when genuinely interested in something. She couldn't help breaking all barriers there were between them whenever he looked straight at her.

Or maybe his smile had won her. She still wasn't used to it. She only knew his smirks. Whenever he smiled at her, she felt like she was a different person.

Whatever had been the cause, she couldn't resist it: she told him the truth about Daphne's Book, her short story collection. Along with it, she explained why she wanted so much to write a new book and told him about her problems with her father. When she was done talking, she was surprised she hadn't dropped a tear. And even felt relieved.

Caleb was speechless. And surprised, too, that she had trusted him with that much information about herself.

“I'm sorry,” he finally said, his expression dazed. “I didn't know what writing this book really meant to you. And I guess I misjudged you a lot, too.”

“What did you think of me?”

Caleb raised his eyebrows and stared at his shoes, embarrassed. “You probably shouldn't know.”

Daphne shrugged. “If it helps, I also didn't have a high opinion of you.”

He nodded, and then motioned to leave, but gave up and walked back in the office with a pained expression.

“You know, there's something I've been trying to say since that fight with Jesse,” he told her, and her heart, although she didn't know why, started racing. “I tried telling you this when you came back to visit Mr. Frank. And also on Halloween, when we met in the woods.” Caleb then paused, nervous.

“Yes?” Daphne encouraged him to continue, now feeling a little faint. She didn't know why she felt like she was on the verge of a syncope.

“What I wanted to say is,” Caleb took a deep breath, “thank you.”

Daphne blinked.

“Thank you for saving my life that day,” he said, now more comfortable to phrase it.

“But. . . I didn't.”

“No, you did. I was more dead than alive when Jesse was beating me on the floor, but I was aware of what you did to defend me. I also know that he –,” and then he lowered his tone of voice, “that he didn't go easy on you, too. I hope it didn't hurt that much.”

Daphne's mouth fell open. “Well, I. . . I guess I did what I had to do,” she said, and mentally kicked herself for phrasing it like that. “What I mean to say is – well, I couldn't just stand there and watch him kill you.”

“No,” he cut in, and then smiled to ease her surprise. “No, really, you could have just stood by and watched me die. We were enemies. The side of you that is benevolent even toward the people who make your life miserable could have made you run to get help. Instead, you chose to get involved. You chose to fight for my life, to defend me against one of your friends. That's what I'll never understand about you, Daphne.” He took a step closer to her and touched her face.

She blushed at that unexpected physical contact, but didn't dare to move away from him. His hand then gently brushed a streak of hair that she hadn't realized was caught in the side of her mouth.

“Why did you do that?” He asked. His face was so close to hers she could feel his delicate, warm breath blowing against her lips. She trembled.

“You. . . You are over-thinking this,” she said, struggling to stop looking at his lips. “I just did what a normal person would have done.”

“Are you sure?”

“Y-yes,” she stammered.

Caleb smiled. “Did you know that you bite your lower lip when you lie? Like you're doing now,” he said and softly touched her lip with his thumb.

The feeling was bewitching. Daphne felt a wave of warmth travel through her body. She knew that her face would now be bright red. But she didn't care. All she could do was wonder why he was taking so long to kiss her.

“I don't,” she said in one last attempt to regain control of herself.

“You do,” he said with a smile. “I've seen you do this many times.”

“And you. . . You get wrinkles around your eyes when you get all philosophical.”

He widened his eyes, surprised, and for a second Daphne feared she had offended him, but he then burst into a heartfelt laughter. “I guess I should stop preaching, shouldn't I?” He said, his eyes beaming with happiness.

“No,” Daphne said. “Don't stop. That's just you.”

“Okay,” he said. “But only if you promise me you'll also remain yourself. You'll remain this strange, mysterious girl who confuses me so much. This girl I'm. . . I'm dying to kiss right now.”

Without thinking twice, Daphne flung herself in his arms and clung to him like the world was about to end. When their lips touched, their kiss was desperate and famished, as if they had secretly ached for that moment for a long, long time.

And then the world did end. But, instead of emptiness, instead of the the end of everything, she never felt more whole and eager to live. As long as they were together, she knew, everything would be all right. She knew that Apollo was wrong thinking that she needed to be alone to write that book. She needed Caleb in her life. She needed him, and her family, and everyone else.

In that strange state of love that she now saw the true Caleb, and hate that it had taken so long for them to finally realize what they truly felt for each other, she was certain that he was the one in her life.

“We can't do this,” he said, and she painfully fell from the sky.

“What?” She asked, confused. “Why not?”

He picked up her sweater from the floor and handed it to her, and started buttoning up his shirt with a somber expression.

Daphne felt ashamed and cold. Already regretting what had just happened between them, she put her sweater back on and waited for him to tell her he didn't actually love her.

“I can't betray my friend,” he said, anguished. “I do want you. I want you more than anything, but you belong to someone else.”

“I belong to myself,” she said, confident. “You're mistaken, Caleb. I don't understand why you're saying this.”

“Ben,” he said, and the name dropped like a bomb in Daphne's heart. She still felt guilty he had left. And angry, too, that people kept assuming they belonged together.

“Ben and I were never a couple,” she said, raising her voice. “I don't love him. And he was Tammy's boyfriend, for God's sake!”

“Tammy's boyfriend?” Caleb asked, surprised. “That guy is madly in love with you. I'm sure he still is, wherever he is. I lost count of how many times he confided in me what he felt for you. Tammy did ask him to be his girlfriend, and how I wish he had said yes, but he told her he couldn't. He wanted you. Didn't you know this? He wanted you,” he said, frustrated.

“I thought that they were together,” she said, more to herself than to Caleb. “I knew that he felt something for me, but I. . . Are you sure they were not dating? I saw them kissing on the day Tammy asked him to be her boyfriend.”

“I don't know about them kissing,” Caleb said, and looked impatient. “What I know is that they were never together. And even this kiss you say you saw is unlikely to have happened. You don't know how in love with you he was. He wouldn't have kissed Tammy.”

“Maybe it was just my imagination, then,” she murmured.

It had been Apollo, after all, who had showed her Ben and Tammy together.

She was so wrapped up by her thoughts, that when she heard the door open, she was startled. Caleb was leaving.

“Wait,” she said, and ran to him. “And. . . how about us?” She asked, her heart pounding in her chest in fear that he would refuse her.

“Daphne,” Caleb said, and tried to smile to calm her, “I know this will sound crazy, and that you'll never understand my reasons, but we can't start anything. What happened here was. . .”

“But I don't love Ben,” she cut in, desperate. “I love you.”

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief, and that small gesture angered her.

“Do you think I'm joking?” She yelled at him. But Caleb simply looked at her in the eye, his expression still, like he had done when Tammy threw grape juice at him. It was, then, almost unbearable to stay there facing him after having exposed herself so much.

Daphne tried to walk away, but Caleb pulled her back in the office and locked the door behind them.

“Love?” He asked, as if the word was the most outrageous one. “Do you know what love is?”

“Oh, come on, don't start,” she said, annoyed.

“Do you?” He insisted, keeping her against the wall.

“Yes, I do!” She snarled at him.

“Good,” he said. “Because you just now said you loved me. It would be very disappointing to find out that you use the word at random, when you find it convenient.”

Daphne could hardly believe he was questioning her feelings. Worse, that he was questioning her honesty. She wasn't the type of person who said I love you to gain something in return, to manipulate. In fact, she hadn't ever said it to someone other than a family member. Except for the time she had swore to Apollo she loved him. But that had been just part of the requirement for the deal.

Her feelings for Caleb were different. She was certain they were, even if she couldn't understand them entirely.

“Well, what does it matter now?” She asked, and crossed her arms over her chest. She was getting increasingly annoyed that what had started out romantic was suffocating under his respect for Ben's feelings. Ben, who had never showed even a bit of this so-called love people said he felt for her.

“What do you mean?”

“If I love you or not isn't important anymore. You're loyal to Ben, who was not even a friend to me, and if I love or hate you won't represent anything, because I'm nobody to you. I'm. . . what, an object who belong to someone else?”

“You know that's not true.”

Daphne was so mad that she wanted to slap him right then.

“That isn't? I'm pretty that is true,” she said, and her voice choked in her throat. It was maddening to let him see how she cared for him. But, despite how terrible she felt, she couldn't let him see her cry. She simply couldn't. It would be too humiliating to shed tears in front of someone who refused to fight for her.

“I knew you wouldn't understand my reasons,” he said, and with a tired expression, rolled up a sleeve and took a peek at his watch.

“Do you think you are wasting your time here with me?” This time she couldn't hide how hurt she felt.

“No, of course not,” he said, then aware of his rude gesture. “Don't be like this. We were making progress, weren't we?”

“Oh, yes. If you call making out with me then tossing me away progress, then we were.”

She saw his expression distort in surprise, but she didn't care. It was her new goal to push many buttons to see how long it took for him to get really hurt and offended.

“I hope you don't actually man all these things,” he said, and took a deep breath to calm himself. “I know you are mad at me now and you have reason to be. I am mad at myself, too, that this time I couldn't control my feelings like I had been doing since the day you took a few punches on your back to defend a stupid guy who doesn't deserve you. Be mad at me, hate me if you will, but don't think I've used you,” he said, his voice cracking as he struggled not to cry.

Daphne's heart was racing in her chest. She didn't know for how long she would be able to hold her tears back.

“I can't stay here any longer,” she said, and turned on her heel. “We'll talk later.”

“I won't be here,” he said.

Her hand froze on the doorknob. Without turning back, she waited for him to explain.

“I'm leaving soon,” he continue. “My uncle's picking me up to go home for Christmas. He'll be here any time soon now.”

The first tear rolled down her face. “I didn't know you were going home,” she said.

“Yeah, for Christmas. But I'll be back in January, of course, for the last semester.”

It was terrible to think he wouldn't be around for so many weeks. Especially now, after what had happened between them.

“Good,” Daphne said, and another tear followed.

“Are you going home?” He asked.

“Can't,” she said, and opened the door. “I'm not done with my book. Merry Christmas, Caleb.”

When Daphne threw herself on her bed and buried her face in the pillow to muffle her sobs, she felt like that was the last time she would ever see Caleb.

Even though he had asked her to ignore the fact that she was Mr. and Mrs. Frank's granddaughter, she knew she wouldn't be able to live with that lie for too long.

It would be strange to see them every day, to live under the same roof that had sheltered a teenage Abelard, and to know that she was Frank by blood. To know, by name, that she was tied to their history, their family drama, passions, happiness and sorrow.

As soon as she could, she wanted to march up to McAdams College and ask them to go back to the dorms. Or, if that wasn't possible, she wanted to go back to Marie's abandoned apartment, although this last option left her nostalgic and melancholy.

So, far away from the Franks' Inn, she knew Caleb and her were bound to become strangers.

At college, they didn't have classes in common. They rarely stumbled upon each other on campus. Now that they had gotten involved and Caleb refused to love her in respect of Ben's memory, she knew he would not visit her if she moved away. And she wouldn't, of course, go after him. It would be too humiliating.

That was the end, then. The last time they had been together.

Squeezing the pillow harder against her face, Daphne cried over having fallen in love with the wrong person. And then, with her world again upside down as she found out she was part of the Franks, she felt she had lost the only person who could have supported her at a time like this.

She loved him so much it hurt. And hated him, too, with the same intensity. That's just how the nature of their story was. Nobody ever fell for an enemy and walked away without a scratch.

When she heard a knock on the door, her heart skipped a beat. “Daphne?” She heard and sat up with a jolt. It was Caleb who was calling out her name.

Although she knew he couldn't see her, Daphne quickly wiped her tears. “Yes?” She asked, mentally praying he wouldn't notice in her voice that she had been crying.

“We need to talk,” he said. Judging by his muffled voice, he was talking with his mouth glued to the crack on the side of the door.

“We already talked everything there was to talk. Go away!”

She couldn't imagine what else he wanted with her. Did he want to continue torturing her with saying that he liked her, but they couldn't stay together?

“We aren't done talking. Please, may I come in?”


“Please,” he insisted.

“Go away,” she shouted, and jumped out of bed to go say in his face that she didn't want to see him ever again, but the moment she walked by the golden puddle, a strange figure – a man made of the same liquid – emerged from it screaming and grabbed her by the hair. It had been so sudden, she didn't have a chance to defend herself. When her head hit the floor, the world went black.

It took Daphne a while to understand what had happened to her. The pain in her head was sharp. So sharp that she could barely open her eyes.

She tried to sit up, but something heavy on her chest didn't let her move.

“Did you miss me, my angel?” She heard.


“Have you forgotten me already?” Caleb yelled and with his cold fingers he forced her eyes open. “Look at me!”

Her eyesight was foggy. At first, she saw the silhouette of a man sitting on her chest. Little by little, the silhouette gained volume and color. She saw him.

“Apollo?” She said, her heart beating fast. It was Apollo in his angelic form. “You're back. Oh my Gosh, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I hurt you. I had no idea that was going to happen.”

“Shut up!” He yelled at her and his voice echoed in the room like thunder. Daphne cringed.

“I'm sorry,” she said, although she was then certain Apollo wouldn't take her apologies well. Daphne could only brace herself and wait for the worst to come.

“Shut up. SHUT UP,” he screamed, his face bright red from anger. “You don't love me,” he said in an anguished voice. “You promised to love me in exchange of my help. I've helped you so far. I still do everything for you. And look how you treat me,” he was then sobbing, and every drop of tear that rolled down his face and fell on Daphne, burned through her sweater like it was acid.

When her skin started burning, she kicked and screamed until she managed to push him away and took off her sweater.

She looked in the mirror and saw the pink spots of burned skin on her chest and neck.

“Stay away from me!” She yelled at him. “This deal has gone too far. It's broken now. Go away,” she said, and put on another shirt.

“You can't break the deal,” Apollo sobbed, and kicked and rolled on the floor like a spoiled kid. “You can't, you can't, you can't!”

Daphne had to jump out of the way as he kicked and pushed on the floor everything he could find.

“Stop it, someone will hear the mess you are doing,” she said, trying to stop him. She couldn't help thinking, however, that the Franks and Jane had learned to dismiss the noises that came from her room as signs of a frustrated genius.

He then came to her mind. Caleb had been trying to talk with her the moment Apollo returned. “Caleb,” she murmured, and remembered he was going to leave Middleton.

Already regretting that she didn't beg for him to stay, to give them a chance, Daphne motioned to run to the door, but the moment she turned on her heel, Caleb grabbed her ankles and she fell on her face.

“He's gone,” Apollo said, now sitting on her wings to pin her down on the floor.

“Get off of me!” She screamed and tried to get up, but his weight was suddenly the double of what it normally was. She could hardly breath.

When she started coughing, Apollo grabbed her by the hair and made her kneel down. Facing the mirror, she saw how pale she was. Behind her, Apollo's face was distorted with anger.

He leaned over to speak in her ear, the tips of his long, black hair tickling her neck. “You are not going to break the deal,” he said, weighing down his words, “you know why, because you need me. You'll never finish that book without me, my angel.”

But Daphne didn't want to hear about the book. She was worried about Caleb and needed to know what had happened to him.

“Please, tell me,” she asked, and realized her mouth tasted like blood. “Where's Caleb? Did his uncle come pick him up?”

She saw Apollo raise an eyebrow and a smirk form on his face. “Why do you ask? I thought you hated that boy.”

“I do!” She said, quickly. She couldn't let him find out she cared for Caleb, otherwise she didn't know what Apollo would do. “I hate him,” she repeated, and saw the girl in the mirror bite her lower lip like Jane and Tammy did when nervous. She felt self-conscious. “I am just concerned that he heard me fall when you pulled me to the ground.”

“And he did,” Apollo said, calmly looking in the mirror.

Daphne saw her eyes widen in surprise, but tried to keep her voice casual. “What did he do, then?”

Still holding her hair, Apollo summoned a golden ribbon and started to tie her hair back in a ponytail. “He walked in the room. Nosy, nosy brat,” Apollo said, distracted with her hair. Daphne motioned to stand up, but he still kept a firm grip of her hair. “And then. . .”

“And then what?” Daphne asked, nervous. “What did you do to him?” She asked, this time correcting her tone of voice to sound indifferent.

“You mean, what did you do to him?” Apollo asked, amused.

“What? I did nothing to him. I passed out when my head hit the floor,” she said, and saw her expression looking more and more concerned. If only she could get Apollo to let go of her hair, she'd run away from him and try to find Caleb. She needed to see with her own eyes that he was fine.

“You passed out. And then you woke up, got up, yelled at the brat to leave you alone. Told him he didn't deserve you. Told him he meant nothing to you. Told him to disappear and never come back,” Apollo sang. “And then you laughed in his face,” Apollo said, and burst into laughter, “because he really had believed you loved him. The brat believed something other than your book meant something to you,” he said with difficulty, still chuckling. “Even I felt sorry for him. He looked miserable and stormed away yelling that he'd never return to Middleton.”

Daphne felt a pang, and this time couldn't hide her feelings. She saw in the mirror when a stubborn tear ran down her right cheek. “What are you saying?” She asked with a weak voice. “I have no memory of what you're saying. I couldn't have said that.”

“You couldn't,” Apollo admitted. “But I could. I just needed to inspire you to do the right thing.”

Her mouth fell open. She didn't understand. How could have Apollo used her to say such terrible words to Caleb. She had no memory at all of saying anything of that sort. Unless, and the thought of it was too surreal, her body had been his puppet when she was unconscious.

“That's right, Daphne,” Apollo whispered in her ear, reading her thoughts, “I used your body to tell him to go away. That's what you would have done on your own. Now thank me.”

“For how long have you been using me like this?” She asked between her teeth, struggling to hold back her sobs.

“Since you left home. What, my angel, don't look at me with such sorrowful eyes. I needed to. Unless those people wouldn't leave you alone. I had to tell your parents to stop calling. I had to call your father again, though, to book you a room here, because I could tell your roommate would be a problem. I needed to tell that stupid, romantic boy to stay away from you when he went after you at Marie's. And, today, I had to tell that brat to go away. He was getting too attached to you, but fortunately he left with his uncle. You can't imagine how difficult it is to keep you safe from distractions. You are Melancholia, remember? You need to remain melancholy, and alone.”

Daphne wanted to punch Apollo. She turned and swung her arms to hit him, but the window suddenly opened and a strong current of air pushed her away from him. She fell on her futon, confused.

“Don't try fighting me, my angel,” he said, calmly. “You know you can't win.”

How could he have used her against so many people she cared for? “What did you say to them?” She yelled at him. “What did you say to my parents? To Ben? Oh, Caleb, he'll never forgive me. No one will ever forgive me. You had no right to use me!”

“Why are you yelling?” He asked. “You would have told them to go away even without my help. I just made things easier. Why are you crying, my angel? Are you saying you actually love them? Aw, if only I had known this before. . .”

He paused, intently observing her cry.

“Help me fix this,” she begged, and got up with difficulty. “Help me fix everything. I want my family back. That's why they haven't called me. I thought they had forgotten me. Tammy was right to think I was here to seduce Ben. I told my father I liked a boy here, didn't I? You made me say that, didn't you? That's why she hated me so much from the beginning. And, Ben. . . he didn't try talking with me again, and I thought it was because Marie had yelled at him. Oh, Ben. He would still be here. He was going to be my friend! And, Caleb –,” she could no longer speak, her words engulfed by tears. The thought of Caleb leaving Middleton to never come back was terrible. Even if they couldn't be together, she wanted to know, at least, that he would be around. Even if they never talked again, it would have been comforting to think he was nearby.

“There's nothing to fix,” Apollo said with a severe expression. “What's done, is done. It's over. I didn't want them around you. A writer like you needs solitude. You need to be alone to write your masterpiece, Daphne. One day you'll thank me. Sweet Emily did. Only Emily ever understood me.”

Daphne's heart was pounding in her chest. She couldn't just let things stay like that. She wanted to write her book, but above all she couldn't lose the people she loved. “This was a terrible mistake, Apollo,” she said, and got up. “I don't want this anymore. Please, let's break the deal,” she said, and grabbed her notebook. “Here. Take it. If this book is the only thing that is keeping us tied, then I don't want it anymore. Between this book and my family, I choose my family.”

Apollo laughed. “You can't just break the deal. As long as there's a book incomplete between us, there will be the deal.”

“Then help me finish it now,” she said, and sat down at her table with a pen in hand. “Come on, I want it done now.”

“Guess what, my angel. After what you've done to me, I guess I should teach you a lesson. How about we spend the next decade together? You need to do more research to write your last chapter. Let's think about it together for the next ten years,” he said, and laughed again.

Daphne was so mad that she wanted to kill him. She thought of saying he had writer's block, like she had done before, and watch him melt down into a golden puddle. But that would only postpone her problem with him. Apollo would always be back.

She didn't want that life. She didn't want him to be always around her and push away the people she loved. It had been difficult to have the whole world reading her most intimate thoughts. How she had hated her father for that, but the idea of living a life void of the people she loved was worse. She hated Abelard for being selfish, but also loved him for being her father. She hated and loved Caleb and Ben the same way. And Marie. And Tammy and Jane, and Jesse, and the Franks. All of them.

Daphne then held her pen down to a blank page. If Apollo wasn't going to help her, she had to do it on her own. She would finish it.

“You know you can't,” Apollo said.

“Of course, I can. I'm a writer.”

“Then go ahead. Do it. Let's see you write the last chapter.”

She tried to write. Her hand felt too stiff. No idea occurred to her. It was like her fountain of inspiration had dried out. Of course it had. Apollo wasn't telling her what to write anymore. Had that been the case even with her journal, the one her father had thought to be a composition book? Had it been inspired by Apollo? She didn't remember seeing him back then. Where had all her impressions come from, then? It didn't take her too long to figure out. They had come from deep inside her, from a place she barely visited these days after the world had read Daphne's Book.

If only she were like Tammy, who was strong even when everyone was against her. Tammy had the courage to fight for herself, despite all the torturing experiences she had gone through. In a situation like this, Tammy would have known what to write – or, in her case, what to paint – to get out of this enslaving deal with Apollo. Daphne wondered if, when she reached the end of the world, Tammy would go back to painting.

“It looks like you can't finish your book,” Apollo said, peeking over her shoulder at the notebook.

Daphne looked up at the bookshelves her father had sent to her. So many books surrounded her. So many other writers in the past had gone through the same process of writing their masterpieces, and finished them. Had them all, also, had to agree on a deal with Apollo? Was Creativity, really, the only reason why people got their work done? All those writers, painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, everyone out there. Had them all been slaves of the Muse?

She saw Isadora on a shelf, and like she had met him yesterday, she vividly saw professor Lawrence Steinberg's face in her head. His tranquility, his easygoing nature and passion for what he did. Isadora couldn't have been written by someone under a contract with an entity like Apollo. His story was of a more subtle, soothing quality.

Clinging to the memory of their meeting, she wrote down the first word. And then the second, third, and the rest flowed. Apollo observed her from far away, amused by her writing. He thought it had no quality. He said it was amateurish. “You need me, Daphne. Don't mutilate your book. You know you'll have to get rid of it and come to me for help,” he said, certain that she was going to give up writing the last chapter sooner or later.

She felt how rusty her writing was after such a long time of copying down what Apollo told her to write. She hadn't written anything from her heart since the day Daphne's Book got published, and then in Middleton she only put down on paper what Apollo said was proper for a masterpiece. It felt like learning how to walk on her own again.

The girl watched her crooked and anxious handwriting, following the story with her eyes as she wrote it and feeling increasingly satisfied with each written sentence. It was already dark when Daphne's hand finally stopped moving. She glanced at Apollo, who had been resting on her bed. He gave her a look of suspicion and slowly walked up to her.

“Have you realized, already, you can't do this without me?” He asked her, and looked down at the notebook. He snickered. “You can't do this. You're plagiarizing Steinberg's work, that fool man. His story is pathetic, Daphne. He wrote it on his own. It's clear I wasn't there to tell him what to do. If only he had accepted my offer, he'd be great today. He had such great potential.”

Daphne was just a sentence away from finishing her novel.

“He wrote it on his own?” Daphne asked, and couldn't help smiling. “Then. . . I guess it's safe to assume I can finish this on my own, too.”

Victoria continued sailing for days.

“No!” Apollo screamed, and grabbed Daphne's wings. “You'll ruin it!” The pain was sharp.

Daphne fell out the chair, still holding her notebook.

She didn't want to go back, she scribbled down, quickly.

“Stop it,” he yelled, dragging her across the room. Her pen rolled away from her. For a minute they struggled on the floor, their hands reaching for the pen. At the last second, she was able to snatch it. He grabbed her throat and started to choke her.

Her boat. . .

She had no air in her lungs and her eyesight was getting increasingly darker.

. . .went on toward the horizon and was never seen again.

Daphne heard Apollo scream, and his grip immediately released from her neck. She saw a handcuff appear on her wrist. It shone bright for a second, and then exploded in a puff of golden smoke. The same happened to Apollo, the hot air balloon by her window, her wings and the ribbon. Her hair fell down on her shoulder. The deal was over.

Still feeling dizzy, Daphne got up. “I'm lucky he underestimated me,” she muttered to herself, and looked up at the copy of Isadora on her shelf. “I guess you were right,” she said, thinking about her first meeting with professor Steinberg. “Imagination is theft. Thank you!”

Although her book was done – her awaited book, the one thing that would save her in the literary world – she didn't feel happy. Her deal with Apollo had been the most terrible mistake she had ever made. She had lost everyone. And she couldn't hardly blame him for that. After all, she herself had wished them to leave her alone.

She left her room holding the notebook against her chest and walked down the steps to the living room. The house felt so empty. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Frank, and Jane, were not at home. There, looking at the fireplace, she remembered Marie's words about living forever through characters. But, the more she thought about her novel, she realized there was nothing in there of her.

Even the concept of living forever, now that she thought of it, felt ridiculous. There was no point in being immortal, if she couldn't share eternity with the people she loved. Without thinking twice, she threw the notebook in the fireplace.

Daphne was watching it burn down, a tired – though relieved – smile on her face, when the door suddenly opened. She stood up with a jolt.

“I realized you were biting your lower lip when you told me I didn't mean anything to you,” Caleb said, his body covered in snow. There was a snow storm going on outside.

She ran up to him and flung herself in his arms. Caleb staggered, but was able to keep holding her. “You got involved before. I guess now it's my turn to fight for you,” he said in her ear.

“I'm sorry,” she said, and couldn't help crying. “I was so blind to everything because of Daphne's Book, because of the new book and how stupid I am. I pushed everyone away. But, I'm ready to live now, and to fight for them. I want to be happy with you, my family, with everyone.”

“It's gonna be all right,” Caleb said, hugging her tightly.

They remained embraced for a long time on the doorway. The wind continued blowing snow in the living room, but Daphne didn't feel cold. She was warm inside. She knew life wouldn't be easy for her – no writer's life was ever easy, for writers also live the sorrows and frustrations their characters do – but at least she wouldn't be alone this time.