Down a Lost Road - By J. Leigh Bralick

Chapter 1 – Change

All I wanted was my change, but Mr. Dansy acted like it was a bank heist.

I’d known him as long as I could remember, and I’d never seen him like this. He had been white as a sheet since I walked up to the counter, and his hands shook so hard as he plucked coins from the cash drawer that I was afraid they’d fall off. Sweat beaded all over his upper lip. I wondered if he was sick, but his little mole eyes kept darting over the convenience store like he was looking for someone. When a car backfired he jumped and spilled all the coins into the bottom of the drawer. That’s when I really started to worry.

“Mr. Dansy, are you all right?”

“Oh-h-h, fine, Merelin. Thanks for asking, darlin’.”

He glanced out the window and a visible shudder ran all the way down him. I followed his gaze, but the street outside was as deserted as ever, mid-morning at the beginning of summer. Most of the university students would already be gone, and they made up at least half the town’s population. I’d never thought of Mr. Dansy as the paranoid type, but he was really starting to freak me out.

He suddenly grabbed my hand and dumped the coins into my palm, pressing my fingers closed over them.

“Don’t lose it, darlin’.”

His head made a nervous kind of twitch toward the door, and his hand shot up to his mouth. Gnawing on a ragged fingernail, he just stared at me through those round brown eyes, big as they could possibly get.

“Have a good day, now,” he said, fingernail still between his teeth.

Okay. He could have just said, “Get out my shop,” but at least he was being polite.

“You too, Mr. Dansy.” I hesitated near the door. “You’re sure everything’s all right?”

“Go, go! Fine. I’m fine. Take care now, and don’t lose that.”

All right already. I won’t lose all forty-nine cents.

I nodded and ducked out of the shop. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, the heat of the early Texas summer blasted over me, thick with the honey-sweet smell of magnolia blossoms. The fragrance made everything shimmer, then my stomach flipped. I stumbled two steps into the shade of the offending tree, grabbing the dark trunk for support. It was so hot, and that smell, so sweet, almost sickening. And there, in my other hand, one rough coin turned so cold it burned.

A terrible sound rose around me, louder and louder, as if all the noise of the town were being sucked into a vacuum right over my head. I bent over, covering my ears awkwardly with my forearms. Louder. Deafening. Then suddenly it was gone. At almost the same instant it felt like someone grabbed hold of my stomach and wrenched it straight out. All the blood rushed to my feet, pulling a shiver of terror behind it. I almost dropped everything. I could have sworn the whole world shuddered.

I turned – it felt like slow motion – and glanced back at the shop. Mr. Dansy’s face hovered near the window, staring out at me. He had his sleeve to his forehead, still sweating. As I met his gaze he took a half step toward the door. He didn’t need to speak to warn me away. I lurched, hard, as if someone had punched me in the back. Clutching the coins, I spun and propelled myself into motion.

I ran all the way home.

Even my sixteen-year-old sensibilities couldn’t have cared less about the spectacle I made – grocery sack swinging wildly, feet hammering the pavement, messy ponytail half falling out. I’m not ashamed of my running. I’m good at it. But running track and running in terror are two totally different things. I wasn’t about to stop to analyze the idea, though.

Head and heart pounding, lungs aching, sweat everywhere, I finally made it home and jumped the front steps in two bounds. As soon as the door cracked open I was through it, throwing my weight back to slam it shut as though something had chased me home. I even snuck a glance through the peephole to make sure nothing had.

“Mer, don’t slam the door!”

I glared in the direction of the family room where my older sister Maggie was reading – where she was still reading. She hadn’t moved all morning. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain my terror to her, eighteen and imperious, too old for such silliness. My fingers tightened on the coins, and I took three

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