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Illustrations by Ross May.
Happy Halloween, readers. To celebrate the holiday, we asked Australian fiction writer Melanie Napthine to craft an original short story sprinkled with spookiness. You’ll find the tale, “The Changeling,” below. There’s a twist, too: This story is of the choose-your-own-adventure variety. At the bottom of the newsletter, you’ll find three links — each one leads to a separate ending. We hope you enjoy.
We all laughed when Daisy came out so pale-haired and squinting, an elvish intruder into our olive-complected family. But she was a snuggler and a smiler from day dot, one of those go-to-anyone babies, who’d gum a finger while looking up at you with raisin eyes, like a tame mole.
She was so placid that Mom would forget sometimes where she’d put her down and we’d play “hunt the baby” till we found her, happily playing with her toes or gazing emptily at the ceiling, on someone’s bed, or a patch of floor.
And yet, despite her easygoingness, her arrival coincided with a sharp decline in our mother’s health. “I’m too old for this,” she’d say, stooping to pick up a toy Daisy had tossed, then reached for, for the 20th time. In the months after Daisy’s birth, Mom’s hair began falling out in clumps, clogging the shower drain daily. She shed the baby weight, and then some, to the point that Dad would pinch her waist and accuse her of wasting away. The purple shadows under her eyes wouldn’t shift, no matter how much sleep she got.
“They say babies steal their mother’s beauty,” said my big sister Maddy. Dad tweaked her ear, one eye on Mom.
By the time Daisy was a year old, Mom was spending most days in bed. “Chronic fatigue” said doctors. Luckily, Daisy seemed untroubled by her absence. She could occupy herself for long periods with nothing more than a ribbon, say, or a plastic cup. (Proper toys couldn’t hold her interest — she hated dolls.)
“Witch baby,” Dad sometimes said because of the way she’d fix you with that stare, her uncannily easy nature. It made him nervous. “None of you were like this,” he told us.
“Don’t call her that,” I would say. As her closest-in-age sibling, I considered Daisy my own special pet. When my brother Harry called her “slow,” because she was late to start walking, I smacked his arm and called him something worse.
When Daisy started talking, I translated her babble. “Ba,” she’d say, pointing at her bottle.
“What are you on about?” Dad would ask. And look all around him, as though he’d lost something.
“Dad. Her bottle,” I’d tell him. And he’d say, “Well, why didn’t she say so?”
“When’s she going to speak like a normal person?” Harry wondered. He was only teasing, but he’d always been the gentlest of my siblings and I didn’t understand his offhandedness with Daisy.
Nor Dad’s. Perhaps it was only long habit, but he still referred to me as his “baby girl,” it was me whose chin he still tickled, big as I was. Sometimes he looked at Daisy like he barely recognized her.
I was the one closest when the crash came, first on the traumatizing scene. Daisy couldn’t say what had happened, but it wasn’t difficult to put it together from the overturned chair, the open pantry, her sprawled, bent little body. She whimpered when I touched her — she’d dislocated her shoulder. (A lifelong problem, those difficult bones of hers, that could be knocked out of alignment by the slightest thing: a bump, a tumble, my father’s horseplay.) Her nose was bloody where her face had hit the tiles.
But also — when my father, who’d run into the room just behind me, lifted her, my pulse froze to see that she’d fallen on top of Mango. Her undershirt was felted with his orange fur. He wasn’t moving.
Daisy cried when we buried him, until the promise of a milkshake distracted her. And was enough, apparently, to permanently dislodge the troubling memory, plucked cleanly as a splinter from her psyche: She never mentioned Mango again.
I was 17 when she started school. Mom and I took her on her first day, a rare outing for Mom, who trembled at the cool breeze on her thin, bare arms, and breathed heavily with every difficult step.
“Is she adopted?” wondered another mother.
“No.” Mom was taken aback.
“Oh, sorry. It’s just — she looks Danish or something.”
Dad had already observed, “Definitely a mix-up at the hospital. None of the rest have cheekbones sharp as that.”
“Like knives,” put in Harry.
Daisy pouted. “You’re a knife,” she told Harry. In Dad’s direction she poked out her tongue.
But when he missed her school concert, at which she sang a line all on her own of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she wouldn’t speak to him for a week. The rest of us went, though Maddy spent the whole time texting and Harry sulked; by that stage he and Daisy were ardent enemies, despite the great age difference. Daisy would narrow her small eyes and tense like a cat when he entered a room, yet if he ignored her she would seek him out, to pinch him or “accidentally” knock one of his video-game figurines to the floor, or, sometimes, irritate him to howling point with an excess of sham affection, nuzzling, butting her hard head into his arm, licking his cheek. Maddy said, “Ew” and “Weirdo” and steered delicately clear, but Harry would rise, helpless as an addict, to the tease.
She’d only ever had two. The first had ended up accusing Daisy of stealing a gold compact, a blatant lie, since it was eventually found in a pocket of the girl’s schoolbag. Despite the bizarre charade, Daisy was willing to forgive the girl, only she left the school shortly afterward, then left Melbourne altogether for Queensland, and subsequently disappeared from all social media.
The second friend was Zac, whom we teasingly called Daisy’s boyfriend. He, too, vanished after only months, and even more completely than Daisy’s first friend: He was involved in a car accident that required a long rehabilitation, and the family moved to be closer to the city hospital where he’d learn to walk again.
And if I thought that at high school, with over a thousand students and every conceivable activity on offer, she might find her niche, I was disappointed. Teenage Daisy smiled less than her toddler counterpart and was quieter too; still, if you asked her directly how things were, they were always great. Though Dad teased her for moodiness, and wondered why she had to make a panda of herself, all that eye makeup.
I left home when Daisy was 15.
By then, Harry was the only other sibling still home; when Daisy walked into a room he would hold his fingers in the shape of a cross at her. A joke of course, and she only ignored him. He told me once: “She’s bad juju. Every time she wishes me luck with something, it goes wrong. If she tells me good night, I have nightmares.” Harry had moved back home after a brief, failed marriage; he was choked with bitterness.
Maddy, now living in London, urged me over there in discursive, highly punctuated emails that very occasionally wondered how “little” Daisy was doing. I visited the family home monthly. Mom by then was completely bedbound, and Dad had just had his third heart attack. Daisy dropped out of school, ostensibly to look after them both. But whenever I visited, the house was a mess: dishes piled in the sink, unfilled prescriptions on the table, once a dead mouse right in the open on the floor. The air felt somehow greasy on my skin, and Daisy was skinny as a blade. Harry said defensively, “I clean. But somehow the mess just … accumulates, I don’t know how. She keeps bringing these animals home, that keep dying. And look — I cut my foot on a can she left lying round last week. I think it’s infected.”
I did what I could to sort the house. But told my parents: “This can’t go on.”
“Take her to London,” my father said. “I’ll pay. She’s doing nothing here, she might as well do it there.” At the airport he grazed our cheeks with his silver beard.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, her eyes for one thing. They’re so — and her clothes — all that black.”
Maddy had never been good with words. And, in her company, neither was Daisy. The two hardly spoke. When Maddy took me to see the sights, Daisy stayed home, reading. Maddy bought her a toothbrush, had a key cut for her. Both stayed untouched on the table by the couch where Daisy slept. When Maddy lost a ring and Daisy found it behind the toaster, Maddy took it from her hands carefully, as though it might be a trick ring that would squirt her with water.
One day Maddy and I returned early from lunch with some of her friends — artists mostly, and we’d all drunk too much. So when we walked in to the smell of smoke and an oddly empty apartment, it took us moments to process the situation. It was Maddy who spotted the missing laptop, but I who located the smoldering cushion, the blackened match on top.
Maddy said, “I can’t believe it,” but her bitter tone belied the words. I was slower: I looked the whole flat over for Daisy’s things, I tried her phone, and got her voice mail: “It’s Daisy. I don’t want to speak to you.”
“But why —” I looked to Maddy, helplessly.
“We said we wouldn’t be back till late.”
“Yes, but —”
But Maddy had her phone to her ear. “Harry. She finally did it. Tried to burn the place down.”
I could hear the roll of Harry’s low voice from the other end of the phone, but not the words. Maddy said, “Yes, yes,” and slid her eyes my way. Then the voice at the other end changed, became deeper and hoarser: Dad. And his words carried clear as the ring of a knife on glass.
“Change the locks. Didn’t I always say?”
Maddy put down the phone and waited for me to speak. I said:
“Call the locksmith.”
The locks were changed that day. When Daisy called my phone, twice, I let both calls go to voicemail.
For months, there were ghosts of Daisy everywhere: pale hairs in the sink, her penetrating eyes returning to me every time I looked in the mirror.
Maddy wouldn’t hear her name. Harry said “good riddance,” voice blurry with venom and drink. He’d had a minor stroke two days after the fire, and connected the incidents. He was just 36.
Our father, too, was cavalier. ”She’ll be all right,” he told us from across an ocean. “Playing some game, I reckon.” We couldn’t speak to Mom, who’d recently been hospitalized. She’d eat and then throw it back up. A stubborn bedsore had become infected.
Maddy replaced the charred couch. But the apartment smelled darkly of smoke long afterward.
The years ran on. I took a series of dead-end jobs, gave up on London, moved to Sydney. There I found work as a sales rep for a commercial shelving company, which was how I met Dean, warehouse manager for an appliance manufacturer. Our marriage — I was 40, he was 52 — was in the spirit of compromise: it was merely practical to pool resources, financial and emotional, as we faced our disappointing middle years.
For thirteen years we heard nothing of Daisy.
Till Mom called to tell us she was gone: an overdose in a Seoul hotel room, of all unexpected places. How they’d tracked Mom down to break the news was a mystery never unravelled, just as we’d never learn how Daisy filled those wandering years, nor what damage she might have wrought.
The news was less shocking than hearing it in the springy voice of Mom’s much-younger-sounding self. Some new drug apparently — a “miracle” said my father, whose own health took an uptick at the same time, like a window had opened. It was sad about Daisy, of course, but she’d really left long ago; this was more like the poignant ending of a book than grief. Or, as Harry said, “Like having a splinter removed.”
Mom said, “Shush.” I said nothing.
Dean and I were more shocked than pleased to learn, shortly afterward, that we were expecting. My pregnancy was plagued by hyperemesis, the baby turned breech, and was at risk of a raft of genetic disorders, according to tests. By the time she was born after a bloody emergency Caesarean, I could hardly muster a smile.
Dean placed her in my arms. His eyes were full, he had one finger on her cheek like he couldn’t bear to break the connection. “She’s so good. She hasn’t cried once,” he whispered. I understood that for him, at least, falling in love was simple and inevitable as tumbling from a cliff.
But our daughter’s weight was like a stone on my chest. She rooted at my breast, and latched on hard. Her gaze took on mine, and nausea rose in my throat.
I had known those eyes, forever ago. The dread that came over me then was like a blanket, snuffing out light. There was no way …
The decision was made in an instant, but with time enough to reflect that it was lucky, really, that Dean and I were not passionately in love.
I detached the infant from me and handed her back.
“I can’t believe you’re all so quick to disown her. This was an accident.”
Maddy shook her head. “She’s always had you fooled.”
But Daisy, when I finally got hold of her, swore up and down that it was a misunderstanding. She’d borrowed the laptop, and knew nothing about any fire. One of Maddy’s louche friends had left a cigarette smoldering, maybe? Or else it was an electrical fault. Old building like that — it happened all the time.
But Maddy was having none of it. She wouldn’t speak to Daisy, she told me, though in fact Daisy showed no inclination to plead her case to Maddy. As ever, it fell to me to mediate, only this time Maddy’s shuttered expression closed off any attempt.
With nowhere now to stay, Daisy and I flew back to Melbourne. I’d thought we might move back with our parents. But Dad said, “Your Mom’s too sick for this.” (By this he meant Daisy, whose name he now avoided like a curse.)
The only places we could afford were rural. Daisy was pretty much unemployable — something about her, no matter how she smiled, failed to convince any employer. I found work at a pub and we managed. As when a child, Daisy filled her days with pleasant inactivity: winding wool around her fingers in intricate, pointless patterns, scattering seed for birds, walking the perimeter of our large garden.
My own hours weren’t much more occupied. Working nights took a toll and I found myself sleeping the days away, waking to pink twilight. I joked I was turning into a vampire.
”Lucky you have me to look after everything,” Daisy said.
But housework was not her forte and the garden grew quickly wild. I tried to hire help, just to get on top of things, but our place was too far out, or too much work — no one would come.
We (I) heard occasionally from family. Mom was thriving under the care of a new doctor, even back at work. Harry had moved in with a hairdresser and had a son. Maddy got a part in a British soap; her photo appeared in magazines. Daisy raised a sardonic brow because Maddy had studied Brecht.
She wanted no contact with family. Out from under the bell jar of their scrutiny, she was light-hearted as she hadn’t been since a kid. When we’d first moved, I’d worried at how sharply our lives had contracted. We saw no one, we produced nothing, our wants were reduced to the physical. But Daisy in the long grass smiling at the sky was enough to reassure.
At least until the day I couldn’t get out of bed.
My appetite had been shot for a while, my limbs weak as paper. I took leave from work to rest, but soon could do nothing but. Daisy brought food, when she remembered, but she was gone for increasingly long stretches, more at home among the trees than indoors. When I asked her to call our parents, she reluctantly did but they wouldn’t come; they’d washed their hands.
Daisy shared this like news of the weather.
There followed a confused time. I slept mostly, and was heavy-headed when awake, like I’d been drinking. I dreamed our dog, Belle, died, or perhaps Daisy whispered it in my ear as I slept. She neglected to take out the garbage; the house became overrun with bugs.
Of course, she was careless, Daisy, so there was no need to attribute to malice the inevitable accident. A pot forgotten on the stove, or so I guessed when the acrid smell reached the bedroom. And she did try to help me — unless, again, I dreamed it. Because the final memory was her voice in my ear: “Katy, I’m sorry. Thanks for choosing me.”
I’m not sure whether I replied, or what I might have said if I did. Maybe I was already sunk into a sleep — smoke, or sickness, or sheer exhaustion — from which it would be impossible to rouse myself.
“We need to find her. Now.”
Outside the sky was black and a light rain was falling. “Let’s split up,” Maddy said. “I’ll head into the city, you look around here.” She left, coat swinging behind her, headed for the bright mouth of the nearby train station. I turned toward the tight network of suburban back streets.
Maddy had taken the umbrella; my thin jacket was soon wet through. I dialed Daisy as I walked, twice, three times, six. I called out into the night once or twice, but felt foolish when only silence answered. The farther from the distant glow of the city lights I walked, the louder grew my footsteps. I wasn’t frightened, only alert, at least until I reached the industrial estate at the edge of town, where box-shaped warehouses stood vast and empty on silent streets. I could have turned back, only there was something attentive in the atmosphere that encouraged me on.
At first I thought it was a cat — some small, low animal moving by the side of an anonymous building. But, in the absence of streetlights, Daisy’s hair was the brightest thing around.
“I thought you’d find me,” she said.
”Why did you do it?”
In a tone neutral as someone giving the time, she said, “Because you all hate me.”
The verb was startling. But I remembered Harry, full 16, pulling her hair. Dad hugging her with stiff arms, Maddy forever forgetting not just her birthday, but her age.
Daisy never cried, so it could only have been rain that made her face damp. She took a step toward me and I belatedly registered the import of you all.
“I’ve always stood up for you,” I said. “But things keep happening.”
“It’s not my fault.” She lifted a hand as though to indicate some invisible, impersonal force. Rain hit the ground steadily, silently. “You think I do it on purpose. But it’s just what happens when people are mean to me.”
“I’m not mean.”
She said: “You’re the worst of all. You liked me being so dependent on you.”
My thumb moved across the screen of my phone, but it stayed black. From several streets over and beyond a concrete barrier came the faint shirring sound of cars on the wet freeway. From there, too, came the glow of streetlights, remote as the moon.
Daisy opened one arm and dipped her chin, inviting me close. Her other arm was behind her back. Harry’s voice in the back of my mind cried no, I imagined Maddy stopping abruptly on a crowded street, looking over her shoulder for me.
“You don’t care at all how hard it’s been for me,” Daisy said. And somehow there wasn’t time to protest or mount a defense. I stepped into the bracket of her arm like she had me on a string. Our hold lasted a moment; then her other arm reached for my neck.