A month later, in mid-October, Daphne's novel still wasn't flowing. In fact, it hasn't begun. But, still, she kept going to The Sphinx, where she could at least do her homework.
Marie had turned into a great friend, into a maternal figure in Daphne's new life. She respected Marie's wisdom, and although it required a lot of patient to hear Marie's constant admonitions, Daphne knew that all her friend did was to protect her. She was always encouraging Daphne to be happy, since she could not understand how a young girl like her could be happy with no friends who were her age, without youth in her life.
Their growing friendship also allowed Daphne to know more about Marie's son.
Although it was strange he left his mother and friends behind, he kept in contact with them. Daphne had seen Marie, at least, receiving letters from him a few times. Now and then she read a letter out loud for Daphne.
My dear mother, I wish you were here to join this universe I've turned into my house. Here, there is freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom to cry and sing. They told me you're welcome to join us. Would you believe that they also learned to call me Gitan? Love, – your Èmile.
Although he often spoke of a place he had learned to cherish and love, he never said where he was.
Daphne wondered where the boy could be, and even Marie could not precise. His letters were often brought by strangers, visitors, passersby going through Middleton, people who did not seem interested in talking, explaining, or giving more than they had to offer. Marie had learned to respect the conditions of their communication, and wrote back to him whenever he indicated in his letter that the messenger would be taking letters back to him.
“I am sure you wouldn't look so sad if you were just like my Gitan,” Marie said out of a sudden on a dull afternoon without customers, as Daphne tried to write. “He was always surrounded by youth!”
"Believe me, I spend the day surrounded by youth," Daphne replied. "It is everywhere and I am tired of it. It is uninvited in my bedroom, in all corridors and classrooms at McAdams, at parks and on the streets of Middleton and even occasionally intruding in The Sphinx!"
"You're a strange child, Daphne Chase. I've never heard of a young woman who wanted to live in a world inhabited only by old people!"
Daphne refused to go to parties and even to the well-behaved social gatherings. She sacrificed her curiosity to explore Middleton and the nearby rural towns, everything in the name of focusing on writing. Her loyalty to this novel, unfortunately, had been poorly paid. Her own writing had failed her and she was becoming increasingly afraid of never accomplishing her goal.
"Why do you force your words into existence so aggressively?" Marie asked, peeking from behind a bookshelf, after she witnessed Daphne throw her notebook away from her.
Daphne blushed, startled to see her friend standing there.
"What do you mean?" Daphne asked, and rubbed her forehead to soothe her anger.
"I thought you liked to write," Marie said, calmly, and then picked up Daphne's notebook.
"But I do! It's just that –."
"Don't lie to yourself. This book is killing you, isn't it?" Marie asked.
"Of course not. I'm just – I'm just not very inspired today," Daphne lied and got her notebook back.
"I'm not the most experienced person, but all these books around you did not come easily," Marie said and pointed at the bookshelves near Daphne. "Writing a novel is like planting seeds and patiently waiting for them to grow at their own pace. If you force them into growing, you'll end up digging them up before they were barely able to force their way up the soil. Now, listen to me. Plant the seeds, take care of them so your plantation will be healthy, and wait for them to grow. Then, when is the time to harvest, you'll see the result you're seeking."
“I don't think I'm very good at – um, at waiting,” Daphne said in a broken voice.
I've waited for too many years.
“Then don't wait. Just do your writing, and when you feel you already did your best that day, forget everything about it, and go live your life.”
"Marie, I hope you know that farming and writing aren't done the same way. It's not like you're saying. If I'm not constantly with pen and paper, my novel will not just pop up! I need to be always writing to get this book done."
"One day you'll learn that in order to get certain goals done in this world, the ones that require all your passion and strength, you'll need to force yourself to walk away from them before you sacrifice your own identity to feed your project's needs. Mishandled projects turn into anthropophagous monsters."
Daphne tried not to laugh. Marie tended to exaggerate. That afternoon she was more excited in particular to get Daphne to go out, because her son had sent her a letter, and she wanted Daphne to be as happy as he was.
"How is he?" Daphne asked, desperate to change the subject.
"Oh, he is fine. I think he is fine," Marie said, a little surprised, and smiled. She held the letter as careful as if she was holding her son's life. "I think he's found his mission."
Marie always looked proud when she talked about him.
"Marie, you always say this. Mission. What do you mean by that? Why do you say that Èmile found his mission?"
"I mean that he's found a reason to live," Marie said confidently.
"A reason to live? Was he suicidal?"
"Oh, no! No, not my Gitan!" Marie said and closed her eyes for a few seconds as if blessing her son, wherever he was.
“I'm sorry,” Daphne said, blushing. “I just don't understand when you say that we should always try to find out what our mission is. I mean, it sounds as if people's roles in society and their lives perhaps were more important than we think.”
"But that's exactly what I think! You need to follow your mission, because your role is meaningful."
"To be honest I think that most of us live rather meaningless lives," Daphne said. "I mean, look at me."
Marie briskly walked toward Daphne, which startled her.
"Watch your words. Your life is not meaningless. There aren't meaningless lives. We are here for a reason, and it is our duty to find out what it is. Once you find out what your mission is, you'll realize that to live is a true blessing," she told Daphne.
"Do you think my mission is to write?" Daphne asked. She felt her whole body was trembling.
"Well," Marie said, and pondered for a few seconds, "I've known you for just a month, but to me it feels as if I've known you for ages. I want to see you happy, and I do like to think that, for as long as you live in Middleton, I'll be your mother here. I feel I can be as open to you as I am to my Gitan, so I'm not sure your mission is to write."
Daphne was surprised.
"No, I don't. I do feel that you need and should be writing, but to me it feels as if writing is just the means to achieve something else in your life.” Marie was aware that was a very delicate subject, but continued talking nonetheless. “Oh, Daphne, don't worry. You'll get your novel done. You know what you're doing. But what I meant is that I feel there's something out there waiting for you. Something, perhaps, that has to do with writing, but will help you achieve something else,” Marie explained.
“I am not sure I agree with you,” Daphne said and stood up to leave. She did not want to hurt Marie's feelings, but leaving would be a way to keep herself from doing so.
"Please, forget what I said!" Marie said. "Simply follow your heart. That's all you should do."
"Oh, I'm fine, don't worry," Daphne said. She was caught off guard by Marie's pleading tone. "I'm leaving just because it's getting late and I should go back to McAdams."
Marie sighed. "I just want you to be happy, that's all. There's a lot more out there that I feel you're missing."
"I know. Don't worry, I'll be fine," Daphne said, quickly, and after hugging Marie, left The Sphinx.
As Daphne walked back to McAdams, although she tried to distract her mind with other thoughts, she couldn't help thinking about everything that Marie had said to her. She felt a little guilty for leaving abruptly, but it was better than staying and end up offending her with a snappy reply.
What was she thinking? Did she want Daphne to start going to the many parties on campus that she deeply disliked? What could she learn from social situations that displeased her? Did she want her to simply forget her goals, to stop writing at all, and to live the reckless life that today's youth seemed to praise? Thank you, Marie, for giving your opinion, but I'm not interested in changing my lifestyle.
Daphne had just entered the road that led to Sampson Hall when, to her surprise, she noticed a familiar figure seating on a bench nearby. When she saw her, Daphne instinctively hid behind a tree.
What could Tammy Molina possibly be doing here?
She wondered whether she should remain hiding or continue walking to her dorm. If she stayed hiding behind that tree, she felt she would be confirming her own weakness. She was, although she couldn't precise why, unsure about talking with Tammy. If she ignored her fears and continued walking toward Sampson Hall, by the time she walked past Tammy, she would have to acknowledge her presence. Just the thought of a mere cold greeting, though, made Daphne tremble.
Before she could decide what to do, however, Tammy made the first move.
"Daphne?" she heard a woman's voice addressing her name.
"What? Yes, yes!" Daphne said, blushing, and awkwardly shook Tammy's hand.
"How are you? Long time no see!" Tammy said and her words sounded awfully rehearsed.
"Yes, long time no see. I'm fine, thanks. And how are you?"
"I'm fine," Tammy replied, dryly.
"How's the boy?"
"He's great. Strong and very restless. He's with my sister right now," she said.
Her tone, as Daphne paid more attention, was still melodious and raspy.
"Yes, and – um, I wanted to say thank you that you found my son when he disappeared."
"Oh, don't worry. The others were looking for him too."
Daphne, until then, had not realized that Tammy had never thanked her.
"Yes, that was a strange night. Wasn't it? I actually – um, wanted to apologize for – you know – Esther."
"Don't worry! I understand you were – well, all of us, we were going through a lot. But I'm glad to know that you're fine and Andre is fine."
Tammy smiled and nodded. Daphne waited for Tammy to say goodbye, but she simply stayed silent for a few awkward seconds.
"Well," Daphne finally broke the silence, "I should go now. I live right there!" and she pointed at the white building with an imposing stately architecture not too far from where they were, where she could also see Creativity watching her with curiosity, as he now had huge, inquisitive eyes. But, of course, Tammy couldn't see him.
"Oh, please, wait!" Tammy said looking a bit startled. "I actually was waiting for you. I was hoping we could talk for a few minutes?"
Daphne raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"You were waiting for me? How did you –?"
"Ben told me you lived here,” Tammy cut in. “I heard you don't have a cell phone, so I thought I should just wait for you.”
Daphne did, but she strategically dropped it in front of her house on the way to the bus station the day she moved to Middleton.
“Ben told you I live here?”
“Yes, he did,” Tammy said, and quickly changed the subject. "Is there a place where we could talk privately?" She asked. Tammy was increasingly gaining control over the situation and more and more resembled the powerful woman she had looked like, once Andre was back, when Daphne met her.
Daphne, on the other hand, felt as if a vortex of strong emotions was taking over her. She didn't know what was more capable of distressing her: whether she was intimidated by Tammy or whether Ben still found ways in her life.
"My room, perhaps?" Daphne suggested.
Their midterm exams were approaching and Daphne then remembered that April had been studying and furiously trying to speak all the Italian she had not practiced in a month. From morning to evening whenever Daphne was in her room all she heard was buongiorno, some sobbed non posso, and a high dose of questa cosa è ridicola until April started crying and stormed away.
"No, actually, not in my room," Daphne corrected herself, "my roommate is studying for her midterms."
Tammy looked around, trying to think of a place where they could talk. As she thought, Tammy unconsciously bit her lower lip. When a drop of blood sprung without her noticing it, she looked at Daphne again.
“Yeah, I don't think there's privacy anywhere in a small school like McAdams,” she said and was a bit impatient. “Do you mind going to my house, then?”
“Your house?” Daphne said, surprised.
“Yes. Do you have a problem with that?”
Daphne promptly said that there was no problem at all. “I will study for my midterms later, then,” she added quickly.
Tammy blinked, indifferent, and with a little gesture indicated which way they should go.
The walk to Tammy's house felt like it was the longest in Daphne's life. Past the nervousness of meeting each other again, Tammy was mistress of herself again. And, in control of the situation, Tammy was then open to show that she wasn't very pleased in being around Daphne, although Daphne didn't know why; and, in her turn, Daphne felt inexplicably uneasy around Tammy.
If there is love at first sight, she thought, rubbing her forehead, there has to be hate at first sight as well.
Daphne, who always observed the world and the people around her very carefully, was aware of the strange situation she was walking into. Although she knew nothing good could come from a meeting with someone who clearly disliked her presence, she could not help feeling curious to know the reason why Tammy Molina had sought her.
Since both of them didn't know what to talk about – or, rather, didn't have interests in common to discuss – they turned to making remarks about the weather for support. It was the strangest conversation. Never two people in the world had so much to say about gray clouds.
Upon arriving at the street where Tammy lived, she recognized Tammy's house right away. Daphne instinctively looked for Esther Brown, but she wasn't there. Without the mysterious Esther around, Tammy's house looked less intimidating – and even normal – compared to the last time she had seen it. It was a dark red brick house, surrounded by a fence of tall iron bars, with large windows that let one see what seemed to be the living room.
Daphne waited for Tammy to open the gate and then followed her through the garden, where here and there a few sad looking flowers that had bloomed during summer still survived. When she walked up the steps that led to the front door, however, Daphne was surprised to find out a black sign that said in golden letters: The Franks' Inn.
“The Franks' Inn?” She murmured to herself.
As she opened the door, Tammy explained in a monotonous manner that the inn belonged to her grandparents, Tobias and Margaret Frank, and she helped them run the place.
When they walked in, Andre went running toward Tammy and grabbed her legs. Tammy laughed and picked the boy up. She was, Daphne thought, quite a different person when with her son.
“Did you take a shower this afternoon?” She asked him.
“No!” Andre said, offended.
“Why not?” Tammy asked him.
“Because he said he would take a shower only if you helped him,” a young lady who had just entered the living room said.
She was tall and very pale, and her long dark hair contrasted with her complexion. She walked in a languid manner and her melodious tone of voice was just like Tammy's.
“Andre, I told you to obey aunt Jane,” Tammy said, but Andre's reaction was to make a face to his aunt.
Jane replied the same way, which surprised the boy and made him laugh.
“I think I'll have to take care of this, then. Um, do you mind waiting a few minutes?” Tammy asked Daphne. “He's a little sick and it's getting late.”
“Yes, sure, I'll wait,” Daphne said and smiled at Andre, who looked shy and smiled back. He had recognized her. Tammy then promptly left with Andre. And Daphne, who didn't know where she should wait for her, stood there looking confused.
Jane, who had been observing everything in silence, rolled her eyes.
“She never showed any consideration for anybody,” she said, “besides her son.” She stretched out a hand to greet Daphne. “Jane Frank. I'm Tammy's sister.”
“I'm Daphne Chase.”
“Ah, so you are the famous Daphne Chase! You can't imagine the headache you've been causing us. If I were you, I'd run away from here right now.”
Jane was no more than fifteen years old, but although her tone suggested that she was just trying to pull a prank, Daphne felt goosebumps.
“What?” Daphne asked and tried to smile to look less nervous.
“Precisely what you heard. And I'll tell you something else: you're in serious danger here,” Jane said, and her black eyes sparked reflecting the fireplace.
“Jane!” Tammy shouted from the top of the staircase. “Could you come up here, please?”
“Just a minute!” Jane shouted back. Before she left, she told Daphne in a whisper: “If you are suicidal, then make yourself at home. There are cookies by the fireplace; they are very tasty. My grandmother baked them. See, she likes baking desserts even though she shouldn't be overexerting herself. Oh well. If you love your life, run away. Leave Middleton as soon as possible!”
Daphne looked at her, surprised, but before she could ask anything, Jane darted away.
Alone in the living room, Daphne looked around and rubbed her forehead feeling impatient with herself. She had scratched it so many times that day that it was starting to feel sore.
A lightning flash lit up the room and the sound of thunder echoing through the house startled her. From a window, Daphne could see that a storm was coming. In the garden, dry red and yellow leaves were falling from a tree.
Daphne walked about the room with her arms crossed over her chest, and observed the many paintings of landscapes on the walls. Most of them were overly gloomy, with nature portrayed in gray and black shades. There was only one, though, that had more light than all paintings she had seen there; it was one of a guitar player surrounded by listeners, and everything about him was yellow, and his intensity shone a golden hue on the people around him, like a sun illuminating that world.
She was surprised to see that all paintings were signed Tammy Frank. They were very good.
Daphne's heart was pounding all the time she waited there. She didn't know what to do. She didn't know what to think. She wanted to know how Jane had recognized her name and why she had made such creepy admonition, but part of her constantly reminded her that Jane was a teenager and probably had joked.
She dropped on the couch by the fireplace and placed her backpack next to her. Lightning lit the living room once again, but this time thundering didn't catch her off guard. Outside, rain fell in thick drops and beat against the windows and the roof aggressively.
Daphne's mind wandered to Abelard. It was almost like her father was intently trying to communicate with her telepathically. If that was possible.
“Can you hear me, Dad?” Daphne said under her breath. “Can you hear me?” She tried to establish communication, but when she realized she didn't know what to say to him, she stopped trying with an anguished sigh, and distracted herself with staring at the flames licking the logs in the fireplace.
While she waited for Tammy Molina, the storm threatened to bring the inn down. In that small and spooky living room, the shadows of the objects danced on the walls. One of the shadows was of herself, in fact.
Daphne raised a hand, and the shadow waved back at her. Daphne tried to make a butterfly with her hands. She saw it form on the wall.
“Am I interrupting you?” Tammy asked her, and the butterfly flew away down the hall.
“No, I was –,” Daphne said in a faltering voice, and realized that she was having trouble breathing. “I was. . .”
Tammy cut in, impatient. “Well, I'm done helping Andre. Do you mind coming upstairs to my room? Grandpa and Grandma are in the office right now, and they already had a full day of work. I don't want them to know that you're here, otherwise they would want to help and forget to eat. Staying in the living room would also be a problem. There aren't many people in the inn right now, but it is an inn after all. We want some privacy."
Daphne followed Tammy.
The lights were on upstairs, but they were so weak that the corridors were poorly lit. All doors were closed. The sound of rain up there, Daphne also noticed, was very distant, almost inexistent. Daphne thought that the whole house seemed to be strangely asleep, sad in that muffled environment. Tammy walked to a door. It had a small number 5 painted on it. She opened it with a large, old key that she took from her pocket and let Daphne in.
Tammy's room was simple. Very simple, actually, and it did not look like the style Daphne was expecting to find. There was something very elegant, something that closely resembled the manners of royalty, in the way Tammy talked. Even when she was aggressive, even when she was inattentive, Tammy knew how to naturally behave as if she was above everyone else around her. Daphne had thought she would find pomp and an exquisite taste, but surprisingly encountered simplicity. She didn't know what to make of these discrepancies.
By the right wall, there was an old looking small, dark wardrobe, and on the opposite side there was a desk with many sheets of paper and what seemed to be old sketches on it. Maybe that cloudy afternoon was to blame, even though Tammy had turned the lights on, but Daphne thought that her room was equally sad compared to the rest of the house.
Tammy pulled a chair to Daphne and sat on the bed, facing her. Daphne couldn't help thinking that in that room Tammy looked like a mere guest. Her personality was in nothing, except perhaps in the dusty drawings placed on the neglected looking desk behind Daphne, or maybe in the red sweater on her unmade bed.
“So? You wanted to talk with me?” Daphne asked and her voice sounded a little hoarse.
“Abelard Chase called us,” Tammy said calmly.
“What? My – my father called you? Why would he call you?” Daphne said, and felt that her heart beat was getting increasingly faster.
“He asked us to book a room for you here. He said that a rustic inn in a small town like Middleton would do you good,” Tammy said, monotonously. “He said that a promising writer like you shouldn't live in a dorm at a school of brainwashers and brainwashed.”
“He didn't do that,” Daphne said more to herself than to Tammy, whose blue eyes sparked offended.
“So you think I'm lying?”
“No, no. That's not what I meant. I'm just. . . surprised.”
Daphne, however, was more than surprised. She was on the verge of a syncope.
Tammy raised an eyebrow.
“And there's more.”
“More?” Daphne cut in.
“Yes. More. Mr. Chase wanted your room to be special. So, he sent half of his library for you so you could feel more at home. He also sent bookshelves. Many of them, in fact. We placed everything in your room like he asked. All of us helped, including my grandparents, who should not be worrying about such matters, but can't just sit and watch us work.
“What? Dad's books are here?”
“He's also paying more for us to stay silent when you're writing. My grandfather even made a sign for you to hang on your door when you're working. I believe that should be enough, unless you prefer something more official. If you give me your writing schedule, I'll distribute it to everyone here.”
“My writing schedule?”
“Yesterday, your father got permission from the dean at McAdams for you to leave the dorms. Your room here is ready. You can move in whenever you want. Just let me know when you're ready to check in. Do you have any questions?”
Daphne was overwhelmed and didn't know where to begin. She rubbed her forehead a few times, but stopped when she accidentally cut herself with a fingernail.
“This is – very, very surprising,” she said hesitantly.
Tammy crossed her arms over her chest, and eyed Daphne with curiosity.
“How did he – how did he do all this?” Daphne asked, uncertain whether she should tell Tammy she had not spoken with Abelard since the day she moved to Middleton.
“He called us a week ago and asked my grandparents to find you at McAdams and get everything settled,” Tammy said, and her voice showed she was getting uneasy. “Middleton is a small town, you know. It's not like we were stalking you. But, if you're unhappy with how things are, I suggest you call your father and solve everything, because my grandparents shouldn't have to deal with so many things.”
Daphne was more nauseous than she thought she could handle, and asked to be excused for a minute. Annoyed, Tammy indicated the way to the restroom.
In the inn's bathroom, Daphne didn't bother turning the lights on. A small window with fogged glass was enough to let in the amount of sunlight that gloomy afternoon allowed. It was still raining, and Daphne observed for a few seconds the rain beating against the window.
Her heart was beating fast and she felt queasy.
She didn't understand why her father still intruded in her decisions so openly. McAdams was a residential school and it had been her choice to live in the dorms like everyone else did. It was part of being a college student. April wasn't the best roommate, true, but she still allowed Daphne the opportunity to have a complete college life. She didn't know what to do, what to say, how to solve this problem. She didn't want to move to Tammy's inn.
Daphne started pacing, but the more she thought about her situation, she realized how trapped she was. Her father had arranged everything to make her feel guilty about refusing this room. He had sent to Middleton his books, bookshelves, he had bothered people to decorate everything the way he wanted, even people who were not supposed to be engaged in this. He had paid, perhaps bribed, the whole inn to get her to live there. She couldn't just step away now. Jane was right; she should have run away when she still had time, when she still had a chance to escape.
The twentieth time Daphne turned as she paced, her stomach was even more nauseous. A furious headache was drilling in her brain and her legs were weaker than ever. Daphne ran to the toilet and threw up.
Time to leave the McAdams' dorms soon reached Daphne, and her departure was very celebrated by April with muffled laughter and long glances to Michelle and Janice. It was evident, Daphne noticed, that Michelle would become April's new roommate – a change in April's life that would cost her marital bliss, a few years ahead in the future, in a warm summer night. Daphne forbore telling it to her, for April didn't seem the type of person open to fortune-telling.
Marie Delbes, who always had a great predisposition to help, helped Daphne haul the rest of her belongings to the inn. She was of the opinion that Abelard had gone too far with everything he had done behind Daphne's back, but she couldn't hide her joy in having Daphne closer to her and the fact that the girl would finally have to mingle with people her own age.
The idea of moving to the inn had been a constant headache since Daphne heard of her father's arrangements, but at least she wouldn't be moving in on her own. She felt more secure that Marie was helping her, which in a way stated to everyone there that she wasn't alone in the world.
When they arrived, Tammy greeted them with her typical coldness, but Marie was indifferent to her sour manners and focused on playing with Andre. Marie would occasionally say a few words in French to him in an affable manner, and Tammy watched them closely.
Andre, oblivious to the tension in the air, took great delight in Marie's presence, and reached for her sparky jewelry with great interest.
“He looks like my Émile at this age,” Marie said while Daphne signed the necessary paperwork.
“Andre looks a lot like his father,” Tammy said out of the blue, defensively, and then averted her eyes as she regretted having said those words.
Daphne and Marie exchanged surprised looks.
While they were still in the office, Mr. and Mrs. Frank came in to greet Daphne. Marie turned out to be a happy surprise to them, and in response she hugged them tenderly.
“Daphne is like a daughter to me,” Marie told them with pride. “This girl has a heart of gold, so take really good care of her.”
“Yes, yes, we will,” they said with a smile.
They seemed to be the type of people someone would easily like at first sight. What mostly oppressed Daphne's heart, however, was their fragile appearance. Both of them were short, scrawny old creatures who looked like they could be blown away by the wind if not careful, and their hair was completely white. Mr. Frank's glasses were very thick, which made his blue eyes look smaller. He definitely was very myopic, like Daphne was bound to be.
Mr. Frank, who had very timid manners, told Daphne about the sign he had made. As he rummaged through a plastic bag to get it for her, Daphne raised a hand to stop him.
“Oh, no. It won't be necessary, Mr. Frank. And, please, I ask everyone to forget what my father said. I don't understand why he made that request. I assure you I'm not that capricious. I'm not a great writer to dare asking more than I deserve. Even if I were, I would never ask such thing.”
“You say you aren't?” Tammy asked and then took a book from a drawer. The sight of that familiar bright purple book made Daphne blush immediately. “Mr. Chase was kind enough to send it to us. I must say that I am impressed. When we met, nothing about you said you were famous, but I am glad your father explained your brilliant career path with such level of details.”
Daphne wanted the floor to open and swallow her. It would haven been way more pleasant than staying there in front of Tammy. As if her father's intruding behavior wasn't enough, Tammy Molina seemed to have entered her life to torture her.
Marie, fortunately, touched Daphne's shoulder in support and said in her usual sympathetic manner, “Daphne is too modest. The truth is that she is famous, yes, just like her father. The gift of writing runs in their blood. In intellectual groups they are very well known and well regarded, Tammy, but you wouldn't know that. It's understandable. You are a young mother, and you're busy working here, God bless you. But, as I was saying, Daphne is very modest, very humble, and prefers to live a simple life, far from the press and the fans.”
Daphne felt as if every inch of her body was frozen, including her thoughts.
Tammy blushed, averting eye contact with Marie, and quickly placed the book back in the drawer. Daphne could tell that she was furiously thinking of a good way to counter-attack, but she never did.
Mr. and Mrs. Frank, who had not noticed Tammy's uneasiness, were very impressed by Marie's words and applauded Daphne's work. They repeated many times that it was a big honor for them to have Daphne as their guest.
“We always have many students from McAdams College lodging with us,” Mrs. Frank said. “We try our best to make them feel at home. We like to eat our meals together in the dining room, and after dinner the students get together in the living room and sit by the fireplace to play games. Mr. Frank and I, I regret, can't always join, because we go to bed early.”
“Grandma grew up here,” Tammy said briskly, and then blushed again when she realized her words had been abrupt.
“Yes, I did,” Mrs. Frank said with a shy smile. “This was my parents' house, and I was born and grew up here. After their death, I inherited the house. It's now too big for us, so Tobias and I decided to turn it into an inn.”
“It is a beautiful house, Margaret,” Marie said.
“Why don't you come visit us, if you like it so much?”
Surprised, Marie turned to see who had addressed her in such straightforward manner.
Daphne felt tense as she waited for a new conflict to take place. But, past the surprise, there was enthusiasm as Marie hugged Jane as if they were old friends.
“Jane, oh chérie, you always look so beautiful. How are you?” Marie asked in a high-pitched voice that up until then Daphne had not heard before.
“Je suis très bien,” Jane replied, and her eyes sparked.
“I'm going to take Daphne's suitcases upstairs,” Mr. Frank said, but before he could reach for a luggage, Jane stopped him.
“No, grandpa. That's my job,” she said, and promptly grabbed the handle of a bag.
“We don't want to bother you, Tobias,” Marie said with a smile. “Jane, Daphne and I can take care of everything. The bags aren't heavy, really. Don't worry.”
Tammy gave the room key to Daphne. It was an old, big key, and resembled Tammy's own room key.
Too restless to wait for Daphne, Marie and Jane strode out hauling Daphne's belongings, and whispering unintelligible words in French to each other.
“Room number eight,” Tammy said.
Daphne spun on her heels to leave, but stopped as she noticed that Mr. Frank looked a little sad and out of place in a work environment where people wouldn't let him work. His eyes were watery blue like Tammy's and they told Daphne that Tobias Frank, almost a century old, didn't want to become obsolete in his own house.
“Mr. Frank, thank you very much. I think I'll take the sign you made, just in case, if you don't mind,” Daphne said.
His eyes lit up, and clumsily he took the sign out of the plastic bag he was carrying and gave it to Daphne.
“I hope living with us will inspire you,” he said smiling.
Margaret Frank, who was standing next to him, nodded.
It was a wooden sign with a string so Daphne could hang it to the doorknob. The calligraphy of “do not disturb” was very pretty. So pretty that it broke the harshness of the request.
“Thank you,” Daphne said once again and left.
Daphne went up the stairs holding her backpack and found Marie and Jane waiting for her in the corridor. They confabulated in whispers with their heads close together like conspiring politicians. When they saw Daphne, they stopped talking and joined her, though without looking bothered by her presence.
“Room number eight,” Daphne told them.
“Ah, of course,” Jane said after rolling her eyes, “Tammy had to send you to the corner.”
Daphne's room was the last to the right, almost hidden, cornered by a bathroom and separated from the other rooms.
“Daphne, I'm not sure it's a good idea to let you stay here,” Marie whispered to her.
“Why not?” Daphne asked in the same tone of voice.
“Not after what Jane told me.”
"What's the matter?" Daphne asked and looked at Jane.
“You don't know my sister,” Jane said and looked annoyed. “Why didn't you listen to me when I told you to run away?”
Jane got the key and unlocked Daphne's room for her. She quickly entered the room, closely followed by Daphne and Marie, who used a cigarette lighter to light up the candles on Daphne's desk.
Daphne was shocked, for the room was almost a perfect copy of Abelard's office at home.
“It's a beautiful room,” Marie said.
Rushing to the window, Daphne opened up the curtains to let sunlight in. She, then, blew out the candles briskly.
“Your understanding of beauty is broken today, Marie. This is not beautiful.”
The room was small and packed with tall bookshelves made of dark wood. They were piled with books, and a quick glance was enough to show that Daphne would only find the major British Romantics there. She already hated those heavy curtains. They were as red as blood, and her bed sheets and a futon by the wardrobe were the same color. The desk had many parchments and even a conceited fountain pen placed on an open notebook as if simulating work left behind. All that, to Daphne's eyes, was almost a sacrilege. Ugly candlesticks, of course, gave the final touch to the environment. It was like going back in time.
“My sister despises you,” Jane said out of a sudden.
Daphne blinked a few times. Marie, standing by her, observed her with a preoccupied expression.
“Why?” Daphne asked. “We barely know each other.”
“You'll soon find out that how long you've known someone in a town like Middleton is of little importance in liking or disliking someone,” Jane said, distractedly observing the books behind her.
“What do you mean?”
Jane turned impatiently.
“Tammy despises you, that's all, no matter how much or how little she knows about you. What you need to know is that she thinks you're on her way.”
“I'm not on her way.”
“Oh, Daphne, I'm afraid you are,” Marie said, worried.
“My sister likes Ben,” Tammy said, and dropped on Daphne's bed as if it was her own.
Daphne's heart skipped a beat. She always felt strange when she heard his name, particularly at unexpected circumstances like that.
“Ben?” Daphne repeated. “You mean Ben Wallace?”
“Yes, him,” Jane said, lazily stretching in Daphne's bed.
“Why does her interest in him make her dislike me so much?” Daphne asked and glanced at Marie for support, but her friend only gave her a pained look.
“Did you know they've been friends since the day you guys arrived in Middleton? She's been after him since that day, in fact,” Jane said, distracted, as she adjusted the pillows under her head.
“So?” Daphne asked, trying to look indifferent, but deep inside she thought that was a strange revelation, since Ben, while they had hung out, had never mentioned he was in contact with Tammy.
Jane gave up on the pillows and sat up, annoyed.
“Oh, please, don't tell me you've never noticed that Ben had a big crush on you. When he came to this inn all he talked about was you.”
“Ben lives here?” Daphne asked, surprised.
“Yes. His friend does too.”
“That can't be true. . .”
“I lost count of the many times Ben asked me for advice on how to apologize to an offended girl. I, of course, soon made him confess your name and what he felt for you. And all that was no secret to Tammy.”
“Tammy is afraid you'll steal him back, Daphne,” Marie added.
Daphne looked from Jane to Marie, angry. She was almost certain they were pulling a prank on her. Tired of being humiliated, she would tolerate nothing else.
“Nonsense!” Daphne said, and blushed in annoyance.
“I knew she would be mad,” Marie told Jane, who stood up alarmed.
“We're trying to help you, Daphne,” Jane said, desperate.
Daphne hated when people tried to help her. Even the word 'help' disgusted her.
“I don't need any help. Why can't people stop intruding in my life? And tell your sister that I have nothing to do with that boy. We had absolutely nothing!” Daphne shouted at them.
“No one here said you had something. The point is that he did want to be with you, then you pushed him away, and now you'll live under the same roof. You don't know how many things my sister did to sabotage your coming to the inn. She even broke your bed!” Jane said and then lifted the blanket to show that the legs of Daphne's bed were made of a different type of wood. “We had to fix this.”
“Why did she book my room, then?”
“Oh, she didn't. Grandpa booked your room. He answered the phone when your father called.”
Daphne instinctively took a step back. Was it true that Ben had feelings for her? That couldn't be possible, and even sounded a little ridiculous. He had never said anything to her.
“But she went to McAdams looking for me. It was Tammy who brought me to the inn.”
“She runs the inn. Besides, she got a lot of money from your father to go looking for you. I suppose she took it for Andre, after all she needs to look after him,” Jane explained, biting her lower lip in nervousness much like Tammy did now and then.
“So this is all Dad's doing,” Daphne said under her breath. She pondered for a few minutes, trying to calm her thoughts. “Well, I don't care whether she likes me or not. What matters is that I have nothing with Benjamin. I'm not on her way. I don't believe he liked me in the past. If he did, he was nothing more than confused.”
“What are you going to do?” Marie suddenly asked. “Are you really going to stay here?”
“I don't see why I should leave,” Daphne said plainly, “not after all the effort Mr. and Mrs. Frank went through to get this room looking like this. Besides, I came to Middleton to work on my book, not to be involved in such trivialities.”
Jane and Marie exchanged worried looks and spent an hour trying to persuade Daphne to go back to the dorms. Daphne listened, impatient, but although that was her wish, she could not acquiesce. Staying at the inn had turned into a matter of proving her indifference to Ben and placing herself above Tammy's unfounded hatred.
“Don't worry,” Daphne said for the hundredth time. “I'll be invisible here. I'll be way too busy to get involved in problems with Tammy.”
“Your presence here is more significant than you think,” Marie told her, anguished, and put around Daphne's neck a golden necklace with a pendant that had a photo of a saint.
“Saint François de Sales, patron of writers and journalists,” she said.
“I'm afraid I'm not a very religious person, Marie,” Daphne hesitantly told her.
“You don't have to be religious for Heaven to protect you,” Marie said. “I must go now and open The Sphinx, otherwise my customers will stop showing up. Don't forget to come visit me. I want to know everything that goes here,” she told her; and, addressing Jane, she added, “you should come see me, too. And keep an eye on Daphne for me, please.”
She hugged Daphne and Jane, and left murmuring to herself words in French.
Jane stayed in Daphne's room a little longer observing her unpack and helping occasionally, though mostly listening to Daphne tell her that all she cared about at the moment was finishing her book. Daphne wanted to be left alone to think over everything she had heard that afternoon, but first she needed to make sure that Jane didn't have the wrong impression of her. She wanted, also, to seem cold and indifferent about Tammy and Ben.
Whether Jane had believed any of her words about writing being her only interest and focus at that time in her life, Daphne couldn't tell. Jane observed her silently with languid eyes and sometimes nodded to show that she was receptive.
When Jane was finally gone, Daphne spent the rest of the afternoon alone in her room in a strange state of torpor.
She couldn't help thinking about Ben. Daphne still couldn't believe that he had told Jane what he supposedly felt for her. What had driven him to develop a crush on her, after all, and be bold enough to spread the news to the rest of the world? They barely knew each other. Their acquaintance was old, but it was far from being called friendship. Everything he had learned about her was a result of the two weeks of meals they had had together. Unless Ben Wallace was a young man with very unstable feelings, she wouldn't believe he really had started having feelings for her. Perhaps, after all, he wasn't exactly the person she had thought he was. Maybe all this was a prank, a childish prank he was pulling on Jane.
Whether he seriously had had a crush on her or simply was joking, Daphne was decided to ignore this story. She had heard the strangest things that afternoon, even stranger than Esther Brown's words.
Everything about Ben Wallace and the world related to him felt utterly detrimental to her writing. All that drama, the lies, the fake smiles and friendship. She desperately wanted to stay away from all that.
She gave her head a little shake to clear her thoughts. She needed to be strong, and forget her problems.
Daphne finished unpacking, and after placing the last shirt in her wardrobe, she was surprised that it was already dark. She walked to her window and observed the lamppost shining a pool of light on the street. Interestingly, at that same time a young man on a bicycle stopped under the lamppost, his blond curls shining under the light, and looked straight at Daphne. She glanced at him, surprised that he was looking at her.
He raised a hand, but instead of waving at her, he wrote in the air. Daphne felt goosebumps.
Beware shone bright in golden, smoke letters.