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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.