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DaLR – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 — Change

 

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 convenience store 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’s when I really started to worry.

I leaned over the counter, trying to catch his attention.  “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 in defiance of the store’s sub-glacial temperature.

“Should I call the doctor for you?”

“No, no,” he said, waving distractedly in my direction.  “No, it’s not that…not that at all.”

But he kept staring out the window, his fingers moving uselessly over the trays of coins, until I gave up and took a step back.

“You know what,” I said, trying a smile and a shrug.  “I can come back later.  I don’t need any of this stuff just this instant.”

Offering to pick up chips and salsa for my mom had seemed vitally 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.

Mr. Dansy flashed a startled glance at my face.  “No, wait,” he said.  “You need this.”

He grabbed my hand and dumped a small pile of coins into my palm, pressing 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 woman in hot pink spandex was getting hauled down the sidewalk by her diminutive Pomeranian, 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 this was starting to freak me out.

“Well,” he said, and fixed me with a strange, resigned kind of look.  “That’s that, I suppose.  Just…be careful.  Don’t lose it, darlin’.”

It? I thought.  Them?  Well, that’s slightly weird…

His head made a nervous kind of twitch toward the door, and his hand shot up to his mouth.  Gnawing on a ragged fingernail, he just stared at me through those round brown eyes, big as they could possibly get.

“Go on now.  Have a good day,” he said, fingernail still between his teeth.

Okay.  He could have just said, “Get out 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!  Fine.  I’m fine.  Take care now, and don’t lose that.”

All right already.  I won’t lose all forty-nine cents.

I just smiled faintly and nodded in answer as I ducked out of the shop.  When I stepped onto the sidewalk, the heat of the early Texas summer blasted over me, thick with the honey-sweet smell of magnolia blossoms.  The fragrance made everything shimmer, then my stomach flipped.  I stumbled two steps into the shade of the offending tree, grabbing the 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.

The wind picked up, hot and dry as a desert, and from somewhere in the shadows a terrible sound rose around me, louder and louder, 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.

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.  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, staring out at me.  I wondered if he’d heard the noise too.  Hard to say—he looked just as terrified as before, with his sleeve to his forehead, still sweating.  When I met his gaze he took a half step toward the door, but he didn’t need to do anything to warn me away.  When the shadows around me darkened under the cloudless sky, I lurched, hard, as if someone had punched me in the back.  Without stopping to think it over, I ran all the way home.

Even my sixteen-year-old sensibilities couldn’t have cared less about the spectacle I made—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, lungs aching, sweat drenching me, 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 for such silliness.  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.

My head cleared and the fear began to fade, slowly, but 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 my forehead with the back of my hand.  My mom would know what to do.  But she had never seemed to like Mr. Dansy much, or at least she barely tolerated him.  No doubt 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 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.

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.

“Ugh,” 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 the bills she was sorting, 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.”  Mom gave me a skeptical kind of look and I glowered, holding out the grocery sack.  “Here’s your stuff.”

“Merelin…”

“What?” I snapped.

And that made me irked at myself on top of it all.  Why was I being so nasty?  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 these.  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.  “What happened?”

I shoved my hands in my pockets, coins and all, and chewed on the inside of my lip.

“Mr. Dansy was being kind of weird,” I said at last, mumbling.  “Do you think I should have called 911 or something for him?”

Her brows shot up in surprise.  “What kind of weird would need an ambulance?”

I shrugged.  “He was just going off about something.  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 there in a minute and make sure he’s all right.”

“Thanks,” I said, letting out all my breath in that one word.

I tried a smile and beat a hasty retreat.  Another minute and she’d be asking for her change, but I wasn’t about to hand over the coins.  Not until I’d gotten a good look at them, anyway.

I ran upstairs to my bedroom and closed the door behind me—gently so Maggie wouldn’t yell at me again.  My hand still clenched in a fist, damp with sweat and scored with lines from the coins.  I could smell them too, that cloying metallic scent that made my stomach quaver.  My heart raced, nervous and excited at the same time.  Part of my brain—the part that was growing up way too fast—insisted I was all worked up for nothing and being childish besides, but I tuned out.  I smoothed the rumpled green sheet on my old iron-framed bed, sat down ceremoniously, and tipped the coins out of my hand.

Somewhere in the corner of my consciousness I thought I heard a door slam, a scattering of footsteps in the hall.  I jumped, my heart pitching to a gallop, and clapped a hand over the coins, but just as fast as it had come the sound had gone…if it had ever been there at all.

Great.  Now I was hearing things, too.  Time to go back to bed and try waking up again.

I turned back to the neat pile of coins in front of me and sighed, feeling utterly ridiculous.  That was it, a pile of plain old coins—the quarter, so tarnished you could hardly see George’s head, two dimes, and four beat up pennies.  And I’d run all the way home in a panic over that?

I frowned.  No.  There was no way I could have mistaken the rough, gouged-out face of the one coin, so burning cold.

Had I dropped it?

I swallowed, remembering Mr. Dansy’s panicked and repeated warning: Don’t lose it.

“Lose what, Mr. Dansy?” I muttered under my breath.  “You could’ve been a bit more specific.”

I glared at the pile of coins.  As tightly as I’d been holding them, wouldn’t I have noticed if one had fallen out?  At least, if I had dropped it, it had to be somewhere in the house, because I’d definitely felt the coin when I was standing by the door.

I slid off the bed, sweeping the coins into my hand and dumping them into an old tin on my dresser for safekeeping.  The wind picked up, setting a branch scraping my window with a fingernails-on-chalkboard kind of sound just as I turned to leave the room.  It made me jump, again, and I’m not usually a jumpy kind of person.  I stared a good two minutes at the window until I’d convinced myself it really was just a tree branch, then I darted out of my room, clattered back down the stairs, and cleared the last three in one leap.

“Merry!”

Maggie and Tony, this time.  They only called me Merry when they were really mad at me for something.  I poked my head into the family room.

“What?”

“Do you really have to sound like a herd of elephants when you come downstairs?” Tony asked, not even glancing up from his physics textbook.  He never stopped studying.

“At least I’m not a barnacle.”

Maggie peered at me over her magazine.  “Your point?”

I shook my head and withdrew.  Sometimes it felt like my twin brother Damian and I were the only sane ones in the family, though I’m sure Maggie and Tony would have eagerly argued the matter.

I wandered into the kitchen and felt around in the empty grocery sack.  Nothing.  Quiet as I tried to be, Mom still heard me rustling the plastic and turned to see what I was up to.

“Looking for something?”

I shrugged.  “Nothing important.  I just picked something up when I was out.  A little trinket coin…thing.  I think I misplaced it.”

A stillness settled over her face, and when she spoke, her voice was carefully neutral.  “A trinket coin thing?  And you misplaced it?”

“Um, yeah,” I said.  “Why?  What’s wrong?”

She studied me closely another moment, then smiled brightly and turned back to the oven.  “I haven’t seen anything like it, sorry.”

“You just seemed kind of, I don’t know, weirded out.”

“I’m fine.”

I crossed my arms, scowling.  Now even my mom was acting strange.  This day just kept getting weirder and weirder.

“Mom, you don’t get to say you’re fine.  That’s an obnoxious teenager thing,” I said, but she only laughed.  “Just let me know if you see it, okay?”

“What does it look like?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it hard.  Good question.  “Like…a coin,” I said lamely.  “Don’t worry about it.”

Without waiting for her reply I made my escape.  I scoured the foyer again, opening and closing the front door and triggering the security beep enough times that Maggie hollered at me again.  Searched up and down the stairs twice, even the cracks in the carpet where the steps met the wall.  No luck.  I’d just made up my mind to head back upstairs when I heard my mom pick up the phone.  Curious, I sat down on one of the lower steps, hooking my arms over the banister as I tried to eaves-drop.

“Mr. Dansy?” my mom asked.  She’d gone to the back of the kitchen, so I had to focus to make out her words.  “Yes, yes, she got home just fine.  Just a few minutes ago.  I know.  That’s why I’m calling.  Is everything all right?  Merelin was worried.  Yes, I know.”  A long pause, then, “No.  You listen.  You have no right—no, enough.  I don’t want to hear it.”

She hung up the phone without a word of goodbye, planting it roughly on the counter.  I sat back, frowning at the kitchen.

Strange.  What was that all about?

I was considering the option of confronting her about it when I heard her coming back towards the hallway.  The last thing I wanted was her finding me there eavesdropping, so I turned and bolted up the stairs, and ran full into Damian.

He only staggered a step, but I felt the world reel and knew with sickening certainty I was going to fly head over heels down the stairs.  Just before I plummeted to my doom Damian’s hand locked on my arm, hauling me upright.  He stooped to look at me—he was that tall, and being on a higher step didn’t help.

“Whoa, Mer, what’s the rush?” he asked languidly.

“Where’d you come from?  I thought you were at the ice rink!”

Damian grinned.  “Rink was closed.  Zam broke down, someone left their gear in the locker room, a tornado tore down the bleachers, you know.  It happens.”

I forced a smile and tried to edge out of his grasp, but he mirrored my movement, still staring me intently in the eyes.

“Mer?”

“Just going to my room.”

“Awful edgy.”

My heart raced.  Much as I wanted to stay and talk to him, all I really felt was terror.  I had to find that coin.  Now.

“Come on, D,” I said.  “I just need to be alone a minute, okay?”

He released me abruptly.  I could feel his gaze following me as I darted to my bedroom.

“What, you got a chat date with some guy I need to know about?”

I stuck out my tongue.  “You’d know it already if I did.  They’re lining up, but they’ll have to wait.”

Damian knew how shy I was.  It was pretty pathetic, and I knew it.  I’d never had a real boyfriend—not one that would get past Damian’s approval anyway—so of course that was the one thing he was always teasing me about.

I slipped into my room and shut the door on Damian’s concerned gaze, snapping the lock.  My heart hitched on a shred of guilt—I never locked Damian out.  Never.  And I resented this coin thing for making me feel like I had to.

From the door I scanned the floor of my room for the coin, inch by inch.  I’d nearly reconciled myself to failure when I finally caught sight of it, glinting coldly between the folds of the granny quilt heaped by my bed.  My immediate relief lapsed into a grumble of annoyance.  All that time spent hunting for the thing and it was right there.

Damian knocked softly on my door.

I seized the coin without looking at it and stuffed it into my back pocket.  Now that I had it safely in my possession, I could delay my investigation a couple more minutes.  Damian was more important, always.

“Sorry, D,” I said, opening the door.

He wasn’t there.  No one was there.  The hallway stretched out, dark and empty.

“Damian?” I whispered.

Behind me the branch scraped and whined against my window again.  My skin prickled, and I crept toward Damian’s room.  His door was ajar, but from the hallway I couldn’t see him inside.  My heart lurched.  I pushed the door the rest of the way open and peered in.

Damian was there, sprawled in his chair with his feet propped on his drafting table, fiddling with some kind of mechanical thing he’d been obsessing over for the last month at least.

“You’re here!” I cried, letting out all my breath at once and clutching the edge of his door.

He cocked his head at me, frowning behind the wisps of his golden hair.  Another creak emanated from the hallway and I leapt into his room, slamming the door behind me and diving into the pillow on his bed.

“What the—Mer, you okay?  What’s going on?”

Breathe, Merelin.  You’re being ridiculous.

“The house is possessed,” I muttered into the pillow.

“Possessed.”

I slanted a glance at him.  “It’s going to eat me.”

“The house?”

I nodded, mock serious.  After a moment I sat up and found Damian still studying me curiously.

“Seriously, D, you weren’t just knocking on my door?”

“Um, no.  You wanted to be left alone, remember?  Since when do I bug you when you don’t want to be bugged?”

“All the time,” I said, cracking a smile.

“Well, okay.  But this time, no.”  He set the device on his desk.  “So, what’s this, you heard someone knocking on your door and no one was there?”

“I know it sounds crazy, but I’m not crazy!  Then there’s that branch, and the door creaks, and…I’m warning you, if I disappear, check the closets.  They’re like big mouths.”

I pantomimed death-by-closet with my hands.  Damian laughed and pitched a wad of paper at me.

“You’re crazy.”

“Be that way.”

Finally I rolled off the bed, but then I just stood there, rooted, both hands shoved in my back pockets.  I could have pulled the coin out right then.  I wanted to, more than anything, but somehow…I just couldn’t make myself do it.  Damian glanced at me once or twice, probably wondering why I was still standing there like an idiot, nervous and speechless.  I would have to talk to him later.  At that moment, I couldn’t seem to find my voice.

I wandered out of his room and slipped into my mom’s.  With all the curtains drawn the room was dark and cool, just the way I liked it.  But I couldn’t see anything with all the lights off, so I switched on the bedside lamp and sat down by the pillow.  For a moment I just stared at the face gazing back at me from the picture on Mom’s nightstand—the face I loved, and missed, more than any other.  My dad.

Pictures of him decorated every wall in the bedroom.  Across from me hung a photo I’d taken myself at our last family reunion, four years ago, on one of those cheap disposable cameras the adults gave us to use.  Dad leaned against our old magnolia tree sipping a mint julep.  The way the light filtered through the leaves behind his shoulder, I’d always imagined that some ethereal figure stood behind him, barely outlined by the shimmer of light.  I used to make up stories about who or what the figure was.  Angel, elf, ghost, the spiritual presence of someone from another world, any number of equally crazy ideas.  I didn’t make up those stories any more.

Three months after the reunion Dad had disappeared.

He left the house late in the evening, when he usually sat quietly in his overstuffed recliner, drinking twice re-warmed coffee and reading last Sunday’s paper.  I remember the rattle of rain against the windows.  It was pouring, a cold and miserable late autumn storm.  And there was my dad, throwing on his overcoat and peering again and again out the window.  He said he had to go to his office at the university to get a student’s paper, but that didn’t explain his panic.  I followed him to the door asking him why he was going, and before he disappeared from the porch light he turned to say something to me.  I never got to ask him what.  Only the rumble of his mellow voice cut through the shattering rain, his dark eyes sad and regretful, and then he was gone.

I’ve never stopped waiting for him to return.  It didn’t matter what the cops said, or how they called a halt to the searches and investigations, all at once, as if on cue.  I remember the day Officer Jankins took my mom aside.  The apologies, the tears.  The reporters with bulky cameras trying to invade the sadness of our house, the neighbors sending cookies, the university’s condolences.  No one whispered, no one spread rumors—none at least that I heard.  They just gave up.  Everyone did, except Damian and me.  We’d made a pledge never to give up hope, and we never did, even though the years had blunted the pain.  Sometimes I think my mom didn’t either, though she wore the mask of acceptance for the rest of the world to see.

My heart ached and the room blurred, but I blinked the pain away and pulled the coin out of my pocket.  I kept staring at my father’s picture.  Part of me didn’t really want to look at the coin.  What if it wasn’t anything special?  Maybe Mr. Dansy had given me an old arcade token or something chintzy like that as a joke, even though Mr. Dansy had never done anything like that before.  And my whole morning of mindless terror would turn out to be just that—mindless.  All worked up over nothing.

I desperately wanted it to be something more exciting.  If I’d been a bit younger, it wouldn’t have mattered if the thing were just a bit of junk.  I still would have pretended it had strange magical properties—something that hypnotized viewers, probably, and evoked strange whispers from dark corners in the room.  I’d always had too active an imagination.  But here I was, sixteen, too old for make-believe and too young to be bored with the tedious sameness of life, day after day.

I dreaded disappointment.

Finally I sighed and uncurled my fingers, holding the palm of my hand under the pool of warm golden light.  For a solid minute I sat and stared.  The object was a small circle, about the size of a silver dollar, cast from some heavy, dull-sheened metal that looked a bit like bronze.  In the center the metal twisted in a complicated knot, kind of like the Celtic necklace Maggie always wore.  All along the knot were the tiniest, strangest letters I had ever seen, but the endless knot made it impossible to tell where the words began and where they ended.  Or maybe they weren’t normal words meant to be read in the normal way at all.  Maybe you could just grasp the meaning, the way you sometimes suddenly just know something.

I pressed my fingers over it and thought I felt the metal pulsing between my fingers, like the ground does under my bare feet before a thunderstorm.  I half expected to see it glowing when I opened my hand.  It only went on glinting coldly, the soft lamplight shining a bit on the bumps, but swallowed in flat shadow in the crevices.  It seemed so unspectacular, but it was the most curious, wonderful, terrifying thing I had ever held.

And suddenly I remembered that I had seen it before.

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