The new surge of cash more than covered Merle's tuition. More than enough to cover anything he could dream up. Obtaining more money was now only a matter of lifting the lid off the banker's box. Each time he opened it, the pile of cash replenished. He could afford to go out with his friends, and Amber wouldn't need to worry about her bank card breaking again. Merle had her covered.
He just had to be more careful not to attract the attention of the person who burglarized his dorm. But that didn't stop him from daydreaming about buying a new car. Maybe two. One for him and one for Amber, who always pointed out expensive cars. There was enough money for all the cars he could want. All he needed to do was place the cardboard lid over the banker's box and then take it off again. Money was no longer a problem. Gran would have been so proud.
But he was haunted by one question. When did Amber need a bank when she could have summoned money herself? He didn't enjoy lingering on that thought and asking her might invite one of her temper tantrums.
As long as he never asked, they could keep going out every night, and he wouldn't have to go to class. He could be done with school and move on to other adventures. After all, that is what his parents had done. Moved on.
And if he didn't want that, he could always buy back Gran's ranch from Peggy. He just wouldn't give her the same banker's box.
They went out to celebrate every night, and he stopped going to class during the day. True to her word, Amber never mentioned Eric again. Neither did anyone else. And Merle never saw him again.
I did some research as to Eric's whereabouts. Police found his body in his submerged car. They assumed he tried driving across a frozen lake during unseasonably warm temperatures. I suspect something more sinister.
In any case, Merle was happy in a way that made him forget all the times he had been unhappy. The only thing that could bring him down was wondering about when he'd need to pay for making money appear from an empty box. So he tried not to think about his mysterious debt too often. Same with thinking too hard about Amber's broken bank card or even the wristwatch she hadn't paid for. He thought it best to set those thoughts aside for when there was time to deal with them.
The night of Amber's birthday, the bar was more crowded than usual, and the bartenders were having trouble keeping up. Everyone at one point in the evening had hugged her and wished her well except for one person. Merle didn't recognize him, and neither did Amber.
"Hey you!" she called to him and waved her over to the table. It was littered with empty pitchers and shot glasses.
The man walked over, not sure why he had been yelled at.
Amber leaned over to him, "What are you doing here?"
"Heard this was the place to be tonight. Someone's birthday or something."
"It's mine! Now, what did you bring me?"
The man was unprepared. He was just looking to have an exciting evening without being noticed. He shrugged his shoulders.
Amber had him trapped. There was no way this unsuspecting man could escape. "Looks like you owe me a dance."
She took the stranger's hand and leaned over to Merle, "Hun, can you get us some more drinks?"
Then she led her new dance partner into the center of the dance floor.
Merle struggled to navigate the tightly packed group, being too timid to nudge strangers out of his path. The music was too loud for anyone to hear his polite requests of, "Excuse me." Still, he managed to snake his way through the crowd towards the bar and into an open area. A space that had no business being as open as it was in front of the bar. Five more people could have comfortably joined him there, but there was only one other. A dark-haired woman sitting on a bar stool with his back to him.
Below her shoulder-length hair, the straps of her top that crisscrossed her back. There was a magnetism to her presence, and it was drawing Merle in.
Her head tilted slightly, recognizing that someone was approaching, and she took a slow spin on the stool, revealing a penetrating gaze.
Just as one force drew him in, her eyes
pushed him away, back into the crowd.
Her expression was not hostile, but there was an unsettling power behind it, and it was best observed at a safe distance. A sentiment that appeared to have been shared by everyone near the woman.
Everyone seemed to keep a nervous eye on her while pretending to be in conversation or supplying drink orders.
Merle felt her gaze turn away from him, and he breathed a little easier. But, his mind was not entirely free from her captivating looks.
His daydreaming didn't last long as it was eventually interrupted by the question "What would Amber think?" and then the more terrifying question, "What would Amber do if she caught him thinking about someone else?"
Best not to find out. He needed to get back as fast as possible with Amber's drinks.
He waved over to the blonde bartender, who was busy with another person's order. The signal went unnoticed, but not for lack of trying. He attempted to get her attention a few more times, and she attended to a different customer each time. When she walked past him for the fourth time, the dark-haired woman said without lifting her eyes from her drink, "Take this gentleman's order."
Merle provided his order while keeping the dark-haired woman in his field of vision, who sipped his awkwardness with a grin. He didn't look directly at her, as he was uncomfortable with the force behind her stare.
The bartender served the drinks with a level of obedience and fear that shook her hands as much as it did her voice.
As uncomfortable as he was, he did not feel right without looking the mysterious woman in the eyes when he thanked her. Her eyes matched the color of her hair, and before he could breathe a simple word of gratitude, she said,
"They're using you, you know."
The power behind her eyes shifted. They pulled Merle in and made him welcome. This was the first time he had ever looked so completely into someone's eyes. He went right through the gateway and sank into her soul.
Merle stared into her eyes, trying without success to figure out why she seemed so familiar.
She encouraged his gaze and returned it
with twice the intensity. "They take you places, but I bet they
never invite you to join them." She spoke as if she had known
him for years.
He blinked out of his trance, "Do I know you?"
"Would you like to?" Her eyes were urgent and possessed a secret, but the gateway was now closed.
For the first time, Merle met a stranger whose friendship he did not want. He doesn't remember how he responded the first time he met her. Some words were said, but their attention was distracted by a server dropping a stack of glasses on the floor, shattering them. The moment their eye contact broke, he backed into the crowd.
He still looked for her from what he judged was a safe distance. There was an unfamiliar danger to be seen by her and not know it.
Even after they left, he couldn't put her out of his mind. She lingered in his thoughts the next morning, but by the afternoon, he had shaken the bizarre encounter off.
Except when he saw the woman the next night he went out with Amber; sitting at the bar. Her eyes waiting for him, teasing a secret.
The disturbing preoccupation returned when he saw the woman the following evening. There were no words exchanged. Only watchful eyes that sang a constant refrain: He was being used.
What would she know? Or care? Dismissing the accusation was difficult. There was the scene at the store over winter break, the broken bank card, and how his money was stolen shortly after he had cut Amber off. The whole line of thinking threatened to take away everything Merle had gained. Still, the more time he spent with Amber, the more his suspicions festered.
This continued on with no end in sight. Each night they went out the woman with dark hair was there. No matter where they went, not even when their plans changed en route to where they had planned on going.
Amber started to notice Merle paying less attention to her and began harboring suspicions. Only, she wasn't afraid to level accusations about his wondering eyes. Amber's jealousy came out in other ways, like forcing Merle to watch every night as she talked to every guy within ten feet of her. It was a punishment she knew would tear at his insecurities better than any other tactic in her arsenal.
She had always danced with others, but now the intent of movement had changed. Any complaint from Merle was repelled with "Stop being so controlling. I'm just having a little fun."
Amber boxed him out of the social circle he was briefly the center of. Her behavior reinforced the mysterious woman's words. "They take you places but never invite you to join them." The more he understood, the more he wanted to meet with the woman. She was always there. Alone. With eyes that stirred him. But he could never find a moment where Amber wouldn't notice his absence. She always knew where Merle was while she was ignoring him.
His desire to meet the woman contradicted what he wanted to tell her: stop following him. Her presence was a reminder of her words, and if she left, he could forget them. He wouldn't question Amber, and Amber would stop her games.
After two weeks of halfhearted attempts to break away from Amber, his moment arrived. Amber's phone rang, and she answered it before the first tone had finished. She covered her free ear, but it was impossible to hear anything over the bumping bass. She walked toward the door. Merle never remembered her leaving a club to take a call. This was a first.
It was the perfect opening. Merle marched toward the woman before the door closed behind Amber.
"Miss, are you following me?"
"Maybe, have you settled your tab?"
"I pay for my drinks in cash."
"Not talking about your drinks."
He didn't understand. He didn't have any
debts, thanks to the banker's box and dark magic.
His back straightened, and his shoulders tensed. She wasn't talking about financial debts.
She added, "Don't worry, I'm not here to collect." His eyes connected with hers. The secret her eyes had been keeping turned out to be the secret he thought only Amber knew.
"Look, I don't know anything about paying."
"Oh, you had to know something. Otherwise, your spell wouldn't have worked. And it looks to me like it has." She nodded in the direction of Amber's friends.
"You don't think I used it on them? Do you."
"No, like I said before. They're
using you. The one girl more than the others."
"Is she lying to me?" Merle asked without thinking. How could this woman possibly know?
She handed him a business card, but the lighting at the bar was too dark for him to read. So he slipped it into a pocket without knowing the benefit of its information.
"I've got some friends who'd like to meet you. Invite us over some time." Then she stood up and walked past him. For weeks, he had wanted to be free of her, but now he wasn't sure he wanted the right things anymore.
"Will I see you again?" he called after her.
She didn't turn around. "Only if you call." Her voice made clear she was disinterested in hearing anything else from him.
He stayed at the bar. Didn't order a drink. Didn't bend anyone's ear with his peculiar tale. He sulked until Amber came back inside. She moved right past her friends and found Merle's coat. He thought she would go through the pockets looking for a few bucks, but she put it on instead. She sniffled, and Merle couldn't tell if it was from the cold or if she had been crying.
She backed herself against a wall,
standing as far away from her friends as she could.
She was up to something, and whatever it was, Merle wanted to get it over with.
Amber had not found her confidence by the time he approached her. She was clutching herself through his jacket. Still, he had witnessed her temper change with the wind, and he had just been talking with a strange and beautiful woman. He prepared himself for a public display of anger. Instead, she spoke in a voice, so weak Merle had to tilt his head to hear her plea to go home.
If this was the first time he met Amber, he wouldn't have believed she had a reputation for screaming in public when things didn't go her way.
From the moment they drove off, she was apologizing without saying why she needed to. Merle couldn't make sense of her, and he was distracted by his conversation with the other woman. He wanted to focus on that conversation, but Amber kept saying how sorry she was. He casually promised he would take care of whatever was upsetting her.
She only wanted him to take her home. When they were close to his place, Amber said she needed to spend the night in her apartment. A cold silence followed.
Merle shook his head at his rotten luck. He wanted the mysterious woman to leave him alone, so he could see Amber how he used to, but his success had upset Amber so much she had become a different person.
Small talk would have been good. Something to fill the air and make the two of them breathe easier. But Merle never grew out of his old habit of starting to say something and then second-guessing a few dozen times before giving up.
Amber was the one who broke the silence.
"I had to pay tonight."
"For what? I covered everything."
"I had to pay for using dark magic."
"What? Why would you have to pay? I'm the one who used it. You told me I'd pay." He found the courage to crack a joke, "Just like I do for everything else."
"You idiot!" She snapped out of her solemn demeanor and into a shadow of her furious self. "How do you think I knew what to do?"
There it was. The ugly truth. At first, Amber had been using Merle for his inheritance, but her end goal was to manipulate him to cast a spell she didn't want to pay for. Anger boiled inside him but wouldn't release. He couldn't yell at someone who was crying. Even if she could.
"What did you have to do?" He didn't want her to answer. He just wanted her to stop crying so he could be mad for one time in his life.
She put her head in her lap and cried into her knees, "It was disgusting."
He patted her back while he drove, knowing full well she had been using him from their chance encounter at the department store.
"I can handle disgusting," he
said. Preparing himself for what he would need to do someday.
Amber collected herself for a moment. "Oh, it's going to be so much worse for you. My spell was small compared to yours. It changed my life for a day, but your spell had a longer effect."
"Is that how this works?"
"Hell, if I know. But it'd better be. It wouldn't be fair if you got of easy."
The car stopped at a red light. Her body was shaking, and he thought she was going to vomit. Instead, she screamed. No words. Just raw noise that continued after all the air had left her chest.
Then she whimpered, "Oh God, I'm going to hell."
The traffic light switched to yellow for the crossing traffic.