The moment her fingers wrapped around the neck of a guitar instead of around the spine of a book, I knew that the family tradition would die with me. From the moment my twelve year old daughter plucked at those strings for the first time, she was a goner and everybody knew it. Everybody acknowledged it. They even praised her for it. But, according to the whispered rumours flying around the shelves I stocked on a daily basis, I was villain in every story that featured my daughter.
I don’t understand why she won’t support Danica’s music.
All Larissa ever cared about since little Dani was born is their family legacy.
A bookstore owner or a librarian is hardly a profession to be proud of, if you ask me.
Dani’s won so many prestigious awards already.
When will Larisa realise that the poor girl is better off following her dreams than being stuck in this town like all the other women in their family tree?
I never cared much for idle gossip. I found it amusing; a much needed source of amusement for avid readers looking for a more entertaining shopping experience. Hardly anyone in the whole town found the married and bored Mrs Drewby a credible source of information anyway. But on days like those--on days like these--when it all became a bit too much, I would find herself closing my eyes and replaying images of old memories to keep the cold at bay. I would visualise a younger, more enthused Danica running up and down the shelves, dragging me towards a shelf and pointing at a book on the topmost shelf with unwavering adoration.
On days like these, I would watch at the shadows creep into my store through the large glass door and see her walking through the door; her eyes locked onto the shelf pushed against the farthest wall. Her guitar would be slung over her shoulders and her feet would lead her towards her target before the bell can stop ringing to announce her daily arrival. But then I blink, and the memory of my teenage daughter fades away.
I let out a shaky breath and glance back down at the headlines glaring up at me from the wooden surface of the store’s front desk. Upon first glance, they aren’t that different. But the more my gaze glides between them, the more glaringly obvious their differences become. One is printed across a typical, neatly folded Eldrige County newspaper. The other is printed against an A4 sheet of paper with creases along the edges of were it was folded into quarters. One of them has a picture of my daughter on stage with a guitar and an award in her hand. The other has a picture of my daughter and her brother being shielded by my husband as they’re accosted by the paparazi outside a police station. Both of them are dated May 5th. Both of them were supposedly published from the town’s printing office two days ago, but only one copy circulated this town that morning.
TWENTY YEAR OLD MUSICAL PROTEGE STILL MISSING
MYSTERY BEHIND LARISA LEROUX’S MURDER FINALLY SOLVED
Two very different headlines rest side by side in front of me. I grab hold of the one that doesn’t belong in this town and turn it over. A single question is penned in the elegant strokes of her handwriting. It greets me as soon as I flip over the article she photocopied and slid between the covers of the book on my shelf. After unfolding her note in half, it was the first thing I saw. I’d scoffed as I read it, but that was before I saw my name across the headlines. I look down at her question with new eyes.
Do you believe in a parallel universe too?
I feel a vibration against the side of my thigh. I place the creased note back down on the countertop to unearth my phone from the confines of my jeans. I blink down at the sight of see my husband’s name flashing across the screen for a minute. After blinking away the moisture pooling just above my lower eyelid, I hold the phone up to my ear.
“How’s the search going?”
Direct. To the point. The phone calls between myself and the rest of the people Dani left behind have been this way ever since the night she disappeared.
I shake my head, my eyes straying to the picture of the musical protege in her shining moment--then to the picture of a girl whose face is gaunt and cast in shadows. “It doesn’t matter where I look, Phillip. There’s no sign of my Dani anywhere.”
“We’ll find her soon. I know we will.”
I wish that I could say the same. I wish that I had an ounce of his unwavering faith left inside me. I wish that she hadn’t sent me the article.
A moment of silence passes on his end. Then Brent’s voice drifts through the phone.
“Where’s the pasta sauce?”
“Not now, Brent. I’m on the phone with your mother.”
“Hey, mom,” Brent says, his voice significantly louder, “where did you put the pasta sauce?”
“Check the cupboard next to the one above the oven, sweetie.”
“It’s been five hours since the search teams headed home,” my husband says, resuming our earlier conversation. “How much longer are you planning on staying out there without taking a break?”
“I’m not in Ridgemond right now,” I tell him, making my way around the front desk. As I approached the store’s entrance, I added, “I’m at the bookstore.”
“Again?” Brent asks, too surprised to bother hiding the incredulity in his voice. “No offence, mom, but I think the last place you’d find Dani would be at the bookstore.”
The corners of my mouth lift up into a rueful smile despite the empty void expanding in my chest. I’d be lying if I said that thought hadn’t occurred to me. But around a week ago, I realised that her public aversion to the store is what made it the perfect hideout during the day. When everyone in town was out searching the whole continent, it made sense for Dani to hide out in the one place nobody expected her to be. I started leaving notes again, just in case she did indeed wander in when no-one was watching. And then one evening, when I went to check the shelves, the sunset was the most beautiful it had been in weeks--all because of those two glorious words. The sun shone a little brighter each day that I continued to open Charlotte’s Web and unfold one of her notes.
Now that I know the notes hadn’t even been from her to begin with, I don’t know if the sun will ever shine again.
In the background, I can make out the faint beeping of our microwave. I flip the OPEN sign attached to the door to CLOSED when Phillip’s muffled voice reaches my ears.
“You’ve been going out of your way to lock up the bookstore a lot lately. Is there something that I should know about?”
I cast a glance at the newspaper on front desk; at the battered copy of Charlotte’s Web beside it. “No. Not at all.”
“We promised not to keep secrets in this family, Larisa. Not after the way Dani’s secrets caused her to run away from home.”
“She didn’t run away.”
“I’m on my way to join the search,” Phillip informs me. “Come home as soon as you can, okay? I don’t feel comfortable leaving Brent alone, considering everything that’s happened.”
“I have one more thing to do and then I’ll head home.”
I hang up and grab hold of the newspaper on the counter. Its pages crinkle in my tightened grip, but I barely pay attention on my way to the photocopier in the back room. I detach the front page away from the rest of the newspaper and find a pen while the machine whirs to life. A million thoughts, a million possible responses, pop into my head before I settle on one. Tearing the cooling sheet of paper away from the machine, I flip it over and scrawl a messy reply. By the time I wedge the battered book onto its perch in the centre of the shelf, some of the weight pressing against my chest eases.
I may have lost all hope that my daughter wants to be found by me, but somewhere out there is a girl who hoped to never stop feeling her mother’s presence.
I may never be able to have the opportunity to tell my Dani just how much I love her and appreciate her music more than any stupid family legacy, but I can make sure that Danica never forgets the feeling of just how much her mother cared about her.
My hands wouldn’t stop trembling.
The moment we received the call about the arrest from the county police--the moment I watched the life drain out of our father’s eyes--I knew we’d have to experience the pain of her death again like a second tidal wave. It wasn’t until we went down to the station today and sat across from mom’s killer that the cold started to creep in under the surface of my skin. We were in two separate rooms. A thick wall of glass separated us from her murderer. If he glanced our way, his eyes wouldn’t be able to see anything but his own reflection. His calloused hands wouldn’t be able to reach out and grab me at all, and yet as soon as I raised my eyes to his, I felt like he was looking directly at me. He knew I was there; that we were there to watch the police officers interrogate him again. He stared directly at the glass and recounted every sordid detail of the night he slit my mom's throat with a smile.
Why did you do it, Mr Fitzgerald?
She blackmailed me about coming out to the police with my secret. She uncovered the truth about a rumour, you see. Dug her own grave, if you ask me.
Would you state what rumour you're referring to for the record?
I don't have to. Her daughter knows all about it. Don’t you, Dani?
My hands haven’t stopped shaking since we left the station. No amount of stacking the shelves will get them to stop.
“It’s not your fault.”
I glance up from the steaming liquid in the mug my hands are wrapped around to see my dad watching me with a worried crease in his brows. I shake my head, not trusting myself to speak.
A hand reaches across the table. I want to flinch away, but he I can feel his shared grief through the contact. He wants to shoulder my burden. He needs to share his own grief at losing his wife.
“It isn’t your fault,” he repeats, his tone firmer, more resolute. “Everyone is entitled to their secrets, Dani. But using his own secrets as a motive for a murder that he committed makes him the one at fault, not you.”
It wasn’t about that. It was about so much more than that. I never told mom a thing about what happened when she was alive, and she took it upon herself to uncover the truth. I didn’t tell her what happened, and it led to her death. I need to make sure I don’t make the same mistake with dad, but every time I think of coming clean, images of all those secret encounters with our neighbour flash through my mind. I can almost feel Mr Fitzgerald pressing his body against mine when no-one else was looking. I can feel his unwanted caresses, his forceful holds. I can hear the rasp in his voice and feel the tears stream down my face every time it happened.
After everything that happened, how can I possibly tell my dad that every time I look at Mr Fitzgerald, all I see a sexual assaulter, not a murderer?
Everyone is entitled to their secrets.
But what if I wanted to start carrying mine around on my sleeve for my family to see?
My dad glances down at his watch with a frown. “I have to head out to work soon.”
He looked torn between stepping out the door and keeping an eye on me. I forced a smile and shook my head.
“I’ll be fine dad. Go to work.”
“Call me if anything happens.”
“I will,” I promise. And strangely, despite everything, I meant to keep my promise.
The moment he walked out the door, the shadows started to creep back into the bookstore. Nobody had entered all afternoon. The townsfolk were probably giving me the time and space that my father practically yelled at them to give. I finish my tea in an attempt to chase away the cold settling inside me. When the last rays of sunshine completely disappear over the horizon, I drag myself over to the shelf and grab hold of Charlotte’s Web. A page folded into quarters slides out of the book and onto my waiting palm. The headline of a newspaper from May 5th stares up at me--"Twenty Year Old Musical Protege Still Missing"--and proves what I already guessed about mom being from an alternate universe. I flip her note over, expecting to see a lengthy explanation about how she, too, used to tell Danica all about her conspiracy theories every time she made pancakes on a Sunday morning. What I read is something completely different, yet very much needed. I don't realise just how much I needed to hear the words until they were scrawled in her handwriting for me to discover.
I never had the chance to tell my daughter how much I love her before I disappeared. If your mother was anything like me, she didn’t care about the family legacy at all. Don’t hold on to the pain of losing me for too long, my Danica. I’ll always be here if you need to talk, but if you’re keeping any more secrets from Brent or from dad, take a chance and trust them with your secrets. Your family will always love you no matter what. I will always love you, no matter what happened to you or who you become one day.
Au revoir, ma fille.
The pressure against my chest vanishes the more I read over her words. I feel the beginning of a genuine smile start to spread across my face. I feel something akin to hope for the future start to blossom within me. It's a feeling I thought I'd lost the ability to experience. And although she signs her note goodbye, it’s been so long since I heard my mother speak French to me that the simple phrase--Goodbye, my girl--chases away the cold I haven’t been able to shake off for weeks.
I reach into my pocket and unearth my phone. I press my finger against his name before I can even consider talking myself out of what I’m about to do. Because mom is right. My family doesn’t know a thing about what really happened and Brent still hugged me on his way back to school. Dad stayed behind all afternoon to make sure I was okay.
My family loves me regardless of the little they know.
He answers on the third ring. “Danica?”
I click on the button that connects Brent to our call. He answers almost immediately.
“What’s going on?” he asks, no doubt noticing I have him on a joint call with dad.
“There’s something I need to tell the both of you. It’s about Mr Fitzgerald, and what he did to me for months.”