Down a Lost Road — Chapter 1
All I wanted was my change, but Mr. Dansy acted like it was a bank heist.
I’d known him for as long as I could remember, and I’d never seen him like this. He’d been white as a ghost since I walked up to the counter, and his hands shook so hard as he plucked coins from the cash drawer that I was afraid they’d fall off. I wondered if he was sick, but the way his eyes kept darting over the shop it seemed more like he was looking for someone…or expecting someone. And when a car backfired on the street outside, he jumped and spilled all the coins back into the bottom of the drawer.
That was when I really started to worry.
I leaned over the counter, trying to catch his attention. “Hey, Mr. Dansy, are you all right?”
“Oh-h-h, fine, Merelin. Thanks for asking, darlin’.”
He didn’t even glance at me. His whole face was tied up in a frown, like fear or something broken. Mr. Dansy wasn’t old; he might have been younger than my mom, even though he had a habit of dressing in rumpled suits that looked about sixty years out of fashion. But at that moment, the way worry traced lines down his cheeks made him seem almost ancient. Sweat shone on the bald patch on his head and speckled his lip, even though he always kept the convenience store at a sub-glacial temperature.
“Should I call someone for you?” I asked. “An ambulance?”
He gave a short laugh as if I was being funny, then waved distractedly in my direction. “No, it’s not that…not that at all. I’m fine.”
He hit both of those last words with dramatic force, so I wasn’t sure which one he was trying to emphasize more.
Then he went on staring out the window, his fingers moving uselessly over the trays of coins, until I gave up trying to be helpful.
“You know what,” I said, trying a smile and a shrug. “How about I just come back later. Not like my world will end without chips and salsa.”
Offering to pick up a few things for my mom had seemed totally important half an hour ago, when I was desperate for an excuse to get out of the house, but right now I was starting to think home was a fantastic place to be.
Apparently Mr. Dansy thought otherwise.
“No no no wait,” he said, the words all jumbling over themselves. “You need this.”
He grabbed my hand, and before I could pull it free, he dumped a small pile of coins into my palm and pressed my fingers closed over them.
As soon as he released me his gaze flinched back to the window, a visible shudder running all the way down him. I frowned. The street outside was as deserted as ever, on a mid-morning Tuesday at the beginning of summer. A diminutive Pomeranian wearing more bling than strictly necessary was hauling a woman in hot pink spandex down the sidewalk, but no one else was around. Even the ubiquitous university students who overran Brewer during the school year had gone, leaving us a ghost town.
But Mr. Dansy kept staring out the window, like he was seeing something I wasn’t. I’d never thought of him as the paranoid type, but he was starting to freak me out.
“Well,” he said, and fixed me with a strange, resigned kind of look. “That’s that, I suppose. I hope…” His voice trailed off, then he finished, “Just…be careful. Whatever you do, don’t lose it, darlin’.”
It? I thought, bewildered. Lose what?
“You…you doing all right, Merelin?”
I swallowed and glanced away, because of all the things he could have asked, that was the last thing I expected.
“It’s your father’s birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, snatching the bag off the counter. “It was.”
“Merelin…” His voice trailed off briefly, then he turned to stare out the window again. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged, because somehow I wasn’t sure if I wanted to shout or cry or get in Mr. Dansy’s face and ask how on earth he would know something like that about my dad.
If Mr. Dansy noticed he’d just reduced me to a pathetic shivering wreck, he didn’t show it. His head just made a nervous kind of twitch toward the door, and his hand shot up to his mouth.
Gnawing on a ragged fingernail, he stared at me through those round brown eyes, big as they could possibly get, and said, “Well, go on now. And…have a good day.”
I guess he could have just said, “Get out of my shop,” but at least he was being polite.
“You too, Mr. Dansy.” I hesitated near the door. “You’re sure everything’s all right? I can call someone. It’s no problem.”
“Go, go! I’m fine. Take care now, and don’t lose that.”
All right already. I won’t lose all forty-nine cents.
I just nodded in answer as I ducked out of the shop. As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, the heat of the early Texas summer blasted over me, thick with the honey-sweet smell of magnolia blossoms. Suddenly, everything around me started to shimmer, mirage-bright, then my stomach flipped. I stumbled two steps into the shade of the old tree, snatching at the rough dark trunk for support, swallowing and swallowing to fight back the nausea. And then, in my other hand, one rough coin turned so cold it burned.
My fingers spasmed, nearly dropping the whole handful on the ground.
All around me the wind picked up, hot and dry as a desert, and from somewhere in the shadows a terrible sound rose, as if all the noise of the town were being sucked into a vacuum right over my head. I doubled over, covering my ears awkwardly with my forearms.
The sound got louder…and louder. Deafening.
Then it was gone. The silence fell like winter. At almost the same instant it felt like someone grabbed hold of my stomach and wrenched it straight out of me. All the blood rushed to my feet, pulling a shiver of terror behind it. I could have sworn the whole world shuddered.
Was that what Mr. Dansy had felt? What was it?
I staggered away from the tree and glanced back at the shop. Through the tinted glass I could just make out Mr. Dansy’s face hovering near the window, peering out at me. Had he heard the noise too? It was hard to say—he looked just as terrified as before, with his sleeve to his forehead, still sweating. Then the shadows around me darkened under the cloudless sky and I lurched, hard, as if someone had punched me in the back. For one fraction of a moment I met Mr. Dansy’s gaze through the dark glass, then I turned and ran.
I didn’t even care if the whole town saw me—grocery sack swinging wildly, feet hammering the cracked pavement, messy ponytail half falling out. I’m not ashamed of my running. I’m good at it. But running track and running in terror are two totally different things. I wasn’t about to stop to analyze the idea, though.
Head and heart pounding, drenched in sweat, I finally made it home and jumped the front steps in two bounds. As soon as the door cracked open I was through it, throwing my weight back to slam it shut as though something had chased me home. I even snuck a glance through the peephole to make sure nothing had.
“Mer, don’t slam the door!”
I glared in the direction of the family room where my older sister Maggie was reading—where she was still reading. She hadn’t moved all morning. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain my terror to her, eighteen and imperious, too old to be bothered with silly things like why the whole town felt like it had just gone freaking insane. I couldn’t even explain it to myself, because I felt about as paranoid as Mr. Dansy had looked.
My fingers tightened on the coins, and I leaned a few more moments against the door, breathing deeply to try to calm the race of my heart. Gradually my head cleared and the fear began to fade, but for all I tried I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Dansy. Maybe he did need a doctor, and I’d just walked out and left him. Maybe I was the only person who would see him for hours. Maybe he’d finally and completely lost it.
I rubbed a hand over my face. My mom would definitely know what to do. But she had never seemed to like Mr. Dansy much, or at least she barely tolerated him. I think she thought he was already crazy. Maybe he was. I couldn’t imagine he’d ever had a moment’s excitement in his life, but whatever that was back there, it had most definitely succeeded in creeping me out.
Figured. I was just starting to enjoy my summer break. Weirdness and overpowering irrational fears were not my idea of a fun vacation. And since when did anything exciting ever happen at the convenience store? Brewer might be a hick town but it wasn’t that much of a hick town.
The tip of my finger brushed over the rough cold coin clamped in my palm, and again I felt that strange, tugging feeling twisting my stomach. I shuddered and headed for the kitchen.
“Whatever,” I muttered. “That is epically wrong.”
It came out louder than I meant, and of course my mom was right there at the counter to hear me. She glanced up from her laptop, regarding me with faint surprise.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I bit my lip, scrambling to think of a reasonable answer.
“Um, just Maggie. She’s always yelling at me. And I swear this time I didn’t do anything.” Mom gave me a skeptical kind of look and I glowered, holding out the grocery sack. “Here’s your stuff.”
“What?” I snapped.
And that made me irked at myself on top of it all. Why was I being so rude? I didn’t usually cop that kind of attitude with my mom.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m fine. Just tired.”
Mom watched me quietly, the way she did when she knew something was wrong but didn’t want to pry. Sometimes I thought her blue eyes actually turned a silver sort of grey in moments like those. When I was little it was how I could tell if she understood my fears, or the truth of whatever I didn’t want to tell her.
“You ran home,” she remarked. “Are you okay? Did something happen?”
I shoved my hands in my pockets, coins and all, and chewed on the inside of my lip.
“Nah. Just…Mr. Dansy was being all kinds of weird,” I said at last, mumbling. “Do you think I should have called 911 for him?”
Her brows shot up in surprise. “What kind of weird would need an ambulance?”
“He was just going off about…I don’t even know what. But he seemed really pale and sweaty. Isn’t that a sign of a heart attack or something?”
She gave me a reassuring smile. “You know Mr. Dansy isn’t exactly the most stable person on the planet. If you’re worried about it, though, I’ll call down in a minute and make sure he’s all right.”
“Thanks,” I said, letting out all my breath in that one word. I turned to go, but hesitated near the stairs. “He asked about Dad,” I said. It came out a bare whisper. “He remembered it was his birthday.”
My mom bit her lip and glanced away, and didn’t answer.