Page 10 of Daisy Darker

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“Our parents are away all the time too,” said Lily, misunderstanding.

Nana invited Conor to come across the causeway and have lemonade with us; she wanted to call his father to tell him that the boy was safe. Things didn’t used to be how they are now; children didn’t know they might need to worry about an adult offering them a cold drink on a hot day. Conor said yes. Sometimes I wish he’d said no. I remember him walking across the causeway with us for the first time, still yo-yoing as though his little life depended on it. He was officially the most fascinating creature four-year-old me had ever seen.

Our new neighbor lived a mile away, but that isn’t far at all when you are a child and in search of company. Conor didn’t have any other children to play with, and sisters are rarely satisfied to be with one another when someone more interesting comes along. He became a permanent fixture in our lives, and I think I might have fallen in love with him that day. I liked the taste of his name in my mouth and on my tongue, so much so I would whisper it to myself on the days he didn’t come to visit. It felt like snacking between meals. That chance meeting with Conor and his yo-yo changed the shape of my family forever.

We spend our youth building sandcastles of ambition, then watch as life blows sands of doubt over our carefully crafted turrets of wishes and dreams, until we can no longer see them at all. We learn to settle instead for flattened lives, residing inside prisons of compromise. A little relieved that the windows of the world we settled for are too small to see out of, so we don’t have to stare at the castle-shaped fantasies of who we might have been.

There are two kinds of attractive people in the world: those who know that’s what they are and those who don’t. Conor Kennedy knows it. His good looks gifted him an unshakable confidence in life, the kind very few mere mortals experience, and fear of failure is a stranger he has yet to meet. He wears his stubble like a mask, always dresses in scruffy jeans teamed with smart shirts, and his blond hair is long enough to hide his blue eyes when it falls over his face. He doesn’t look like a journalist, but that’s what he is. Thirtysomething going on fifty, and addicted to his job.

Tonight, Conor’s white cotton shirt is clinging to his chest, and a small puddle of water has already formed around his feet where he stands in the kitchen doorway. He looks like he might have swum from the mainland, but that’s not possible—we all learned a long time ago that the riptides between here and there can be deadly.

My dad—seemingly sober all of a sudden—asks the question we all want to know the answer to.

“How the devil did you get here?”

“By boat,” Conor says.

“By boat?”

“Yes, they’re a fantastic invention that you can use to sail across the sea,” Nana says. “I get my post and groceries delivered by boat once a week now too. So I don’t have to cycle into town, or worry about the tide—”

“I expect they don’t deliver after ten p.m. in a storm, though, do they?” interrupts Dad, narrowing his eyes at Conor, like a comedy villain with a sense-of-humor bypass. “What kind of boat?”

“A boat with oars, Mr. Darker.”

“You came here in a rowboat, in a storm, in the dark?”

“Yes. I’m sorry to arrive so late. I got held up at work; there was a murder.” This would sound strange coming from most people,but Conor is a crime correspondent for the BBC. His press pass is still dangling from the lanyard around his neck. “I managed to borrow a small boat from an old friend—Harry from the fish shop. The storm isn’t as bad as it sounds, and it isn’t as though I haven’t rowed a boat across Blacksand Bay before. I feel as though I might be interrupting, and I don’t want to be a party pooper, but I wonder if I might head upstairs and change into some dry clothes?”

“Of course,” says Nana. “It isn’t my birthday until tomorrow. I’m just glad you’re here in time for that. Before you disappear… I found something belonging to you.” She shuffles over to the sideboard, opens a cupboard door, and takes out an old Polaroid camera. It looks like a vintage item from a museum, but I remember when it was brand-new. “Would you mind just taking a quick snap of the family? Who knows when we’ll all be together again?”

Conor takes the camera from her, we all—reluctantly—lean in, and he takes a photo before passing the white square to Nana. She attaches it to her retro fridge with a strawberry-shaped magnet before the picture has even developed.

“Thank you, Conor. I suppose Daisy’s room would be best for you to sleep in. It’s the only one with a spare bed. Unless… that would be too—”

“I don’t mind,” I say, a little too quickly. The thought of sleeping in the same room with Conor starts a little fantasy inside my head, one that I’ve had several times before. Lily pulls a face, but I ignore her.

“That’s fine with me. We’re all grown-ups. It’s just somewhere to sleep,” Conor says, and my fantasy deflates. You can’t make someone fall in love with you. I don’t know much, but I do know that. The rest of my family exchange glances that I choose to ignore.

“Do you remember where it is?” Nana asks.

“I’m sure Conor remembers everything about Daisy,” says Rose.

It’s one of the few times she has spoken tonight, and her words feel like a slap.

I excuse myself and leave the kitchen; Conor does the same and follows. I don’t mind sharing a room if he doesn’t; he used to be like a brother to me. I don’t say a word as we walk through the hallway and past the cupboard under the stairs. I was locked in there once as a child, and I give it a wide birth.

The staircase itself is a rather grand affair, and unique in that the entire wall next to it is covered with a hand-painted family tree. Time-warped branches stretch across cracked plaster from the floor to the ceiling. Nana did it—of course—illustrating our lives as though they were the same as her books, another story to be told. We’re all on there, dangling on fragile-looking twigs. She has painted us in the same style that she illustrates her children’s books, using a pot of black ink and various-sized dipping pens and brushes. Sometimes, if she is in “the mood,” she will draw the outline of her characters with a reed from the garden. Then, when the ink is dry, she colors them in with palettes of watercolor paints. She likes to portray people, places, and things the wayshesees them, which rarely matches the view of those being drawn. Her characters are all as flawed as the world they live in, but childrenlovethem, maybe because of the honesty that shines through what they get to see and read. Other children’s authors seem to sugarcoat their books in an attempt to make the world less scary. But Nana always tells it like it is, and her readers love her for it.

Miniature faces of the Darker family past and present, painted inside the tree’s giant black leaves, permanently look down on the mistakes we’ve all made. It makes me feel an overwhelming sadness: the idea of this one day being a place I can no longervisit whenever I want to. We all have roots in this family and in this house. It isn’t something I think any of us can just walk away from.

Conor and I head up the creaking steps to the first floor, and only when we reach my old childhood bedroom, and the door is firmly closed behind us, do I whisper.

“Why did you have to come here?”

There is an ivory-colored metal daybed against the back wall of my old bedroom. Nana bought it secondhand, for all the times when she slept in here, too scared to leave me alone in case my heart stopped in the night. Sometimes I would wake up and see her staring at me in the darkness, whispering words I couldn’t quite hear. Conor puts his bag on the daybed as though marking his territory, then starts to change out of his wet clothes, with his back to me. I sit down on the very edge of my bed and turn away. Maybe sharing a room wasn’t such a great idea after all. It takes a lot of courage for me to ask the question.

“Could we maybe just talk about what happened?”

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