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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.