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?”
“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."
“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.