The outside air, while too cold to comfortably open a window, is still laced with a promise of warmth to come. The golden sunlight expanding across the watery horizon, for once unfettered by thick winter clouds, only feeds the illusion of spring come at last. It has been a long winter of grey skies and subzero temperatures; perhaps this is why Claire, despite the chill, pulls a thick sweater over her untamed curls and then throws the windows open anyway – every one of them.
Her nostrils sting as she inhales the fresh morning air, but it is a fair trade for relief from the stuffiness of too many months of dry, artificial heat. Beans seems to think so too as he immediately jumps up onto the bed for a better view out of the towering windows. Claire digs under the sink for her duster and begins cleaning while Beans wags his tail and preoccupies himself with the distant congregation of geese milling about the still slightly-frozen waters.
It is surprising to Claire how easily the motivation to clean comes now – not to mention her recent fondness for early mornings. She recalls her life in Benton as a series of long nights and reluctant wakings, her room a giant heap of clothes and homework and half-finished decor projects. When her parents had paid enough attention to scold her, she would tell them that was just the way she was and everything was how she wanted it. Organized mess, she’d called it then, but now she wondered if that were ever really true.
If she were honest, she had just never felt any attachment to that room or those things. Like they were all borrowed, temporary, fleeting things. Her entire life had felt that way then – her time dedicated to things she’d felt obligated to do or that had simply fallen upon her shoulders: school, chores, and (despite her love for her sister) even taking care of Ginny .
That was why she had stayed up so late in those days, sometimes sneaking around the house when everyone else was fast asleep. That was her time – her own secret world where every decision, every experience was her own private treasure.
Now, here at 53 Ganymede, in this tiny room overlooking a sprawling new city, every moment is hers. Every item she carefully dusts – the books from Mack’s shop and the ones leant to her by Hyun-Sook, the jar filled with broken egg shell, the DVDs of old black and white movies left by her door while she slept, and the laptop with the newly installed bluray player Lucy had helped her pick – every item represents something she has chosen, a moment she has experienced, a person she treasures. For the first time she feels a modicum of control over the shape of her life, and with it the ability to actually manifest that control as willpower and motivation.
Claire smiles as she surveys her rooms and sees herself reflected throughout them.
Beans barks, two sharp yips, interrupting Claire’s brief introspection.
“Beans!” Claire scolds, conscious of the early hour and the closeness of her neighbours. Lifting the dog into her arms – though he has grown since his garden-pillaging days he is still not much bigger than Ginger – Claire spots the source of Beans’ excitement moving quickly through the garden toward the side gate. As the figure disappears from view, Beans redirects his attention to Claire’s face and frantically licks her chin while scrambling up her arms to reach her nose.
“Stop that you weirdo dog,” she laughs, plopping the animal onto the crumpled blankets. She glances once more at the empty yard and then walks to her shelf and fetches a rough metal coin. Turning back to Beans, she asks: “You wanna go for a walk?”
Ganymede Avenue remains in sleepy silence when Claire and Beans emerge from the front doorway. Claire takes great care to close the heavy door as quietly as possibly, though Ginger spoils her plans by pacing the couch by the front window and sending Beans into a fit of playful yipping. Shooting the cat a dirty look, she drags Beans down the steps and along the avenue until he can no longer see the mischievous feline. Now that Beans is settled, Claire relishes in the return of the Sunday morning stillness, filling her with an overwhelming feeling of solitude and possibility.
As they walk, Claire glances behind her and along every side street they pass.
“Where did she go?” She asks Beans, finding no evidence of life in any direction. Beans sniffs the grass and tugs her left toward the lake, apparently finding the smell there more appealing than along the house-lined streets. Claire shrugs. Without any inclination as to where her quarry has vanished, Beans’ haphazard path is as good as any other.
She follows the happy pup, rolling out the kinks in her neck as she walks. Soon the houses – a mishmash of cute bungalows, narrow row houses, and stately old Victorians – give way to metal railings and a sloping concrete path down to the parks and piers that line the lake. Stubborn piles of snow still huddle around the railing but are already sweating in the sun and will likely shrink before the day’s end. Claire smiles at the tiny green shoots pushing up through the muddy gardens lining the path, eager to take advantage of the sun.
Beans barks again, and Claire spots the gaggle of geese waddling casually towards them. The foremost goose tilts its head, inspecting the rambunctious creature, and hisses. Claire hurries Beans off along the sidewalk, keeping her distance from the geese and the cold air blowing off of the icy lake. As beautiful as the gentle waves against the pier are, and the tiny pinpricks of green dotting the gardens, the open grassy parks offer little in the way of a windbreak.
Claire shivers under her thick sweater and considers turning back the way she came, but instead follows the sidewalk a little further, hoping to find another path to loop back around toward Ganymede. After several minutes she realizes that the yards and houses to her right are gradually rising up and away from her, observing the lake from an even higher viewpoint than her apartment, and that her hopes of finding a path that way are quickly dwindling. Thankfully, just before she is about to give up, Beans pulls her ahead once more, sniffing the ground as he runs frantically forward.
“Beans? What are you doing?” She asks, nearly tripping over his tiny body when he stops suddenly, glaring at the escarpment above them.
At first Claire only notices the staircase rising in intervals along the steep incline, partially obscured by naked trees. Then she notices the girl nearly three quarters of the way up and steadily climbing towards the top.
“Good boy Beans,” Claire whispers, leaning down to pat his head. Though she has to squint to make out any detail, she is certain that this girl is the same one she glimpsed in the garden this morning (and once before). She hurries to the staircase.
It’s a difficult climb and that much harder for Claire to manage with a wriggling dog in her arms, panting and trying to lick her face as she carefully mounts each step.
“Seriously Beans, you’re going to kill us,” she tells him, pausing to take a breath on a platform only a quarter of the way up. By now the girl is completely out of sight, but Claire presses on anyway, determined to reach the top even just for the sake of knowing she tried her hardest.
Eventually the last stair comes into view, an unfamiliar street waiting beyond it, and Claire finds the strength to push herself the final distance. She sets Beans down on the ground the moment she arrives then pauses to rest her burning legs and take in her surroundings.
What she had thought were houses overlooking the lake she now realizes are actually converted store fronts and restaurants topped by apartments with generous balconies to take in the stunning view. The street is narrow and tree-lined, winding upward and away out of sight to Claire’s left and becoming gradually residential to her right. Though she knows she can’t be far from home, this neighbourhood is completely unfamiliar to her.
The girl has vanished once more, though Claire struggles to focus in her search, drawn instead to the unique charm of this hidden little pocket of Newport. The buildings are old here, embellished with intricate stonework where the old masonry has been left untouched, but the same could be said of much of Newport’s architecture (including 53 Ganymede Avenue). There is something more than this that makes the entire street feel as though it has been transplanted from another time, though Claire isn’t sure she can isolate the exact cause of this. Maybe it is the street lights – wrought from black iron and glass – or maybe the neatly trimmed brick storefronts, each more welcoming than the next. Maybe it’s the specific assortment of businesses and store names – Hatter’s Antiques, The Bread Shoppe, Juniper General Store, etc – or maybe it is just a coincidence that the Sunday stillness lends the entire area a quietness that the bustling city has long forgotten.
Claire notices a banner hanging from one of the old-fashioned lanterns and reads the bold red and black print:
Saturdays & Sundays
8:00 am – 3:00 pm
April to September
Claire sighs, wishing it were just one week later. As it is the shops are shut up, likely not to open until noon. She shivers — a reminder that, while the calendar might say it is spring and the sun may be bright, the springtime warmth will probably remain elusive until next month.
A car appears from the curve to her left and swiftly passes by, the rumble of its modern engine startling Claire and pulling her firmly into the present. Her gaze drops from the banner and alights on a figure watching her silently from across the street.
Unlike the car, the girl suits her setting perfectly; she is dressed in a long-pleated, rose-coloured skirt that nearly reaches her ankles, covered by the cuffs of her brown leather dress boots. A white lace collar peeks from the neat lapels of her mustard-yellow woollen coat. Even the way her hair is done, in two neat brown plaits resting over her shoulders, lends itself to the era of her surroundings.
Beans pulls Claire forward, whimpering when the leash offers resistance and then staring back at Claire in indignation when she remains frozen. The girl crouches down and reaches forward, welcoming his approach and giving Claire the permission she needs to follow.
Her laugh when Beans licks her face is youthful and sincere.
“I heard about you,” she says to Beans, then looks up at Claire and asks, more timidly: “What’s his name?”
“Beans,” Claire tells her, adding, “Is your name Alice?”
The girl nods, standing and brushing the dirt from her skirt. “I guess she told you about me. You must be Claire.”
“What –“ Claire hesitates, afraid that what she is about to ask may be some sort of taboo, “What is her name?”
“Rose,” Alice says. The way she says it so casually makes Claire feel silly for over-thinking the question for so long.
“Rose,” Claire repeats, “Do you… deliver things for her?”
Alice’s mouth bunches to one side, and she inspects Claire sceptically. Finally her face relaxes and she turns toward the shop behind her. Producing a key from her coat pocket, she unlocks the glass front door and holds it open. “She told you about me, so I guess it’s alright.”
Claire steps through the door, and for a moment she feels like she’s been transported back into Rose’s living room; an assortment of boxes and trinkets line the shelves against the wall, and the floor is littered with larger items. But there is too much organization here, and when Claire looks closer she notices the hand-written price tags on each item.
Alice flips the sign behind her to open and begins turning on the electric lights.
“You work here?” Claire asks her.
“Sometimes. It’s my dad’s store really, but I help. We usually don’t open until twelve in the winter, but if one of us is around we’ll usually flip the sign. Just in case.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” Alice answers, blushing a little and hiding it by feigning interest in the boxes of tiny springs and gears on the front desk. She flicks them back and forth with her fingers for a moment before continuing, “I met Rose here when I was eleven. She used to come and buy things from time to time. I helped her carry things home if they were heavy. Then one day she asked me to deliver something.”
Claire lifts Beans and browses the shop as she listens, inspecting the gem-studded workings of pocket watches and the detailed engravings on a solid-wood writing desk.
“It was a package wrapped in brown paper – I don’t know what was inside – and I had to bring it to an address nearby. An older gentleman answered the door and was so excited to see the package I thought he was going to hug me. He didn’t,” she said, “But he just had this smile that was so warm. And there was this smell coming from his apartment – kind of spicy and sweet, like the way my Nan’s house used to smell at Christmas.”
Alice sits in a large leather swivel chair behind the counter and leans with her head forward on her hands, elbows resting on the glass surface. Claire can see the uncertainty in her green eyes, and the way her mouth keeps gathering to the side as she hesitates.
“Rose paid me. I guess I was suspicious a bit, that maybe I shouldn’t have been doing it… but things were really difficult at home with the shop and with my mom leaving… so I kept doing it anyway. Even when the directions and addresses made no sense. Like the lavender patch behind your house. Or buried under a specific tree in the churchyard down the road. I just left the packages there like I was supposed to.”
Alice seems to shrink, and she looks at Claire as though expecting to be scolded. Claire nods in understanding, encouraging her to continue.
“Then one day I was passing the little building where the old man lived – it was sort of at the side of this run-down shop – except it wasn’t there anymore. There was no door or even signs that maybe they had boarded it up or something. There just wasn’t anything. Except the smell.” Alice smiles at the memory, looking wistfully away out the window, “Like roast meat and baking bread and these spices.”
“What did you do?” Claire asks, pulling her attention from a variety of what look to be hand-carved children’s toys and a series of silver and mother of pearl sticks covered in bells that she can only assume are (very unsafe) antique baby rattles.
“I told Rose,” Alice said, dropping her gaze back to the box of watch parts, “She didn’t say anything at first, just sent me on another delivery. A tiny box filled with something that sounded like rain when you tilted it. I thought that if I delivered it, maybe she would give me answers… So I brought it to the back door of a little restaurant in the south end and left it on the doorstep. I heard the door as I was turning the corner, and so I peaked back around. A middle-aged lady was there. She picked up the package and opened it.”
“What was inside?” Claire asks. She is completely immersed Alice’s words now, the strange treasures around her no more than a backdrop to the girl’s curious tale.
“Sand,” Alice says, her voice still filled with awe as if watching the entire scene for the first time. “White and glittery, like jewels. She poured it into her hand and she… I don’t know. She cried at first, I think, but then she laughed and kept pouring the sand from one hand to the other until she finally dumped what hadn’t slipped through her fingers back into the box.”
She chews her lip and pauses.
“It… it felt good. To bring someone a gift like that. I was so overwhelmed and excited and frightened that I was already home before I realized that Rose had never actually given me an address.”
“You’re a finder?” Claire asks, noting the parallel between this girl’s strange gift and Marcus’.
“Finder?” Alice is puzzled for a moment, but then understanding dawns across her freckled face, “Oh. No, I don’t think so. Rose calls me a courier. She used to be one too, but it’s harder for her now; it’s enough just taking care of her collection. She’s teaching me that part too, when I have time.”
“So do you know what the… things… are for?” Claire ventures, hope blossoming in her chest.
“Some of them, I guess. Mostly I just know where they need to go, or that they’re important.”
“You left me an egg,” Claire prompts, and Alice’s mouth twitches to the side once more.
“It’s hard to say. I think Rose said that eggs are for memories, but I don’t know what that means. Sorry,” she adds.
“Do you… do you know who sends them. I mean… I know the finders find things, and the collectors keeps them until they know who they’re for, and then couriers like you deliver them, but why?”
Claire’s heart sinks a little when Alice shrugs apologetically.
“I’m not sure. I mean, I’ve thought about it a lot. Daddy would probably say it was God, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes, I think people send them… people who used to be with us. Or maybe we send them when we wish we could say something, or give someone something. Or maybe the objects just want to find us. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just fate?”
Claire cringes at the word. “Doesn’t that bother you? That this calling was just thrust upon you? That everything you do might be orchestrated by some bigger plan you don’t have a say in?”
Alice’s head tilts in confusion, making her look younger than she is. Or maybe it just makes Claire feel older.
“I don’t think it was really thrust upon me,” she answers, “I mean, I don’t have to deliver things.”
“You don’t feel compelled?” Claire asks, thinking once more of Marcus, “I mean… do you really have a choice?”
Again Alice stops to think, tapping a particularly large gear on the table as she does so. Finally she answers: “I don’t know. It’s impossible to tell what part of our lives we really have control over, isn’t it?”
When Claire looks unsatisfied, she continues:
“I mean… for example: I like vintage clothes, but I grew up around them. If I hadn’t… if my Nan didn’t teach me to sew… would I dress differently? There are an infinite number of tiny details that determine who we are and what choices we make – our genes, where we’re born, who our parents are – do we really choose anything… or were we always going to make that choice?”
Claire is surprised by the young girl’s insightfulness, and can only object with, “But it feels like I make decisions.”
Alice nods. “It still takes effort to make choices. From our perspective, we still have to go through the motions of making them.”
“But… my friend Marcus,” Claire says, hoping he won’t mind this breach of privacy, “When he finds things it’s like a compulsion. It drags him all over the world. It’s like he can’t rest…”
“My dad was like that with the shop when he first started,” Alice says, coming out from behind the counter to smile at the old glass bottles resting on a vintage buffet, “He didn’t sleep, almost never ate… He was either at the shop or in the library researching or out looking for stock. I’m sure it felt good at first – he had a goal and he was accomplishing something – but after a while he forgot how to balance everything else.”
It was a familiar story Claire had heard before countless times: workaholics sacrificing health and family, artists being consumed by their passions, even her own plight to care for her sister. When did something that made us feel purposeful and in control begin to feel like a Sisyphean task that we never asked for? Could it really be the same for Marcus?
Claire sets the question aside for later as Beans begins to wriggle in her arms, bored with their talk and eager for the outdoor air once more.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” she tells Alice, smiling as the girl blushes again. “Just one more question.”
Claire holds Beans tightly in one arm and uses the other to reach into her pocket for the coin, holding it out to Alice. The girl approaches for a better look then makes a sound that might be of disgust.
“You left this on the bench behind the house and I took it by mistake. Rose told me to hold onto it, but I really don’t know what to do with it so I thought you…”
“I don’t want it,” Alice says simply, taking a step back.
Claire looks from the coin and back to Alice. “I’ve tried to deliver that thing eight times now and it always comes back. Keep it.”
“But if you don’t know where it belongs then how should I know?” Claire asks, pulling the coin back so she can get a better grip on Beans.
“I don’t know, but if Rose said you should hold on to it then you have a better chance than I do.”
Alice turns away, back toward the counter to put more distance between herself and the offending piece of metal.
Claire considers pushing the point further, but Beans has spotted another dog outside and is frantically trying to escape.
“Come back again sometime. Please,” Alice says, “It’s nice to talk to someone… someone who knows. You know?”
Claire smiles and heads for the door. “Deal.”
“Bye bye, Beans,” she says, waving to the dog who hardly spares her a glance as Claire carries him outside.
“See you soon,” Claire calls back, happy to be able to set Beans onto the sidewalk and stretch her arms.
As they walk in the direction of home, Claire thinks over what Alice has told her and wonders whether Marcus will be back soon. Though he’s left her the odd movie, she has yet to actually bump into him and hasn’t even had a chance to talk to him about Declan’s dilemma yet. She wonders whether she should tell him about the conversation with Alice, and what he might think about what she has to say.
Thinking of Alice’s story, Claire also wonders about herself. About what talent or goal might be driving her. Does she have a role to play in any of this or was that a choice she would have to make? Rather than overwhelming her, these questions and possibilities give her hope that there is still so much more to discover.
As she mounts the steps back at 53 Ganymede with Beans at her side, her heart beats with even more anticipation for spring – not only for the warmth and colour she has been dreaming of all winter, but also with a feeling that anything is possible, and she has no idea what will happen next.
Photo by Brianna Fairhurst on Unsplash