They sit against one another on the floor, relying on the warmth of each other’s bodies and the steam rising from their bowls to protect them from the autumnal chill. Claire rests her arms on her knees, leaning forward to inhale deeply — garlic and onion, fresh air and wet earth — as she looks out over the rain-pummeled garden and churning waters of the lake below. Lowering her bowl to the hardwood floor, she reaches for a thick slice of bread marbled with cheddar; it is sweet and pillow-soft, the cheese pleasantly sharp and creamy.
“Having a friend who works at a bakery is possibly the best decision I’ve ever made,” she says, setting the bread back onto her plate to embrace the warm bowl of borscht once more.
Lucy elbows her gently, “I didn’t realize you had ulterior motives. So you just come over to eat my food?”
“Hey, I helped make the borscht,” Claire argues, “And you’re starting to sound like your Opa.”
Lucy smiles, but it fades as she turns to look out into the stormy evening. “I hope he’s alright.”
Claire sets her food aside to wrap an arm around her friend. “He said it was just a routine thing, didn’t he? Just some tests. He’ll be back in a day or two.”
She disguises her own private worries under warm layers of optimism and support.
“I hope so,” Lucy answers with a sigh, “Thanks for staying tonight.”
“Of course. To be honest,” Claire says, hoping to distract Lucy from her ruminations, “I haven’t had a sleepover since I was like eight years old.”
“Really?” Lucy is incredulous. “You never had girls’ nights in high school? University?”
Claire shakes her head and then takes a bite of tomato-drenched bread to help drown out all the half-remembered offers she’d once turned down. At the time, it hadn’t felt like a decision so much as a duty to her sister, though Claire wonders now if that were true.
Either way, at a certain point there hadn’t been any friends left to invite her.
“Yeah,” Lucy agrees as if reading her mind, but more likely reading her expression. “I remember those days. When mom was sick. It wasn’t until after that I really started making friends.” She chews a bite of her stew and then her eyes grow as misty as the September air. “Not that it matters now.”
Lucy groans, rolling her eyes with reluctance. “Nothing. I mean, I shouldn’t complain…”
“No,” Claire tells her, “I think that’s exactly what you should do. It’s girls night. We’re here on the floor with a blanket, comfort food… I’m pretty sure you are contractually obligated to complain about whatever you want.”
Lucy can’t help but smile, and Claire counts it as a private victory.
“Okay, okay,” she concedes, “I just… I feel like everyone has moved on without me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I graduated this summer, right? And everyone I know, all my friends and classmates, they’ve all left for college or university. Even the ones that stayed in Newport seem like they have this whole new group of friends, you know? Like they exist in this world now where I don’t really fit in. And this is the first September for me where there’s just… nothing. No anticipation, no expectations, no changes. Just work and home.” Lucy’s voice fades into the sound of the rain and wind.
“You miss school?” Claire asks.
“Not really,” she answers with a shrug, “I like the freedom. I like not having homework. Not having to deal with all the social dramas. But it feels like I’m forgetting something, as if I’m waiting for someone to tell me what to to do next. For some all-important goal to be thrust upon me.”
“Yeah,” Claire says, recognizing in Lucy the same feeling that finally pushed her out of her parents’ door and out into a new city, “That’s the funny thing about growing up. You kinda have to just pick a direction and go for it.”
“That’s just it, though,” Lucy says, her eyes suddenly filled with a frustrated kind of passion, “How the hell am I supposed to know where to start? It’s like… school was this path. Maybe there were some forks in the road but then it was like multiple choice, you know? Right or left. Academic or Applied. Calculus or Visual Arts. But now it’s… it’s just a big empty field and I can’t see anything in any direction so how do I know which way is the right way?”
Claire relives the disorientation of that first train ride to Newport — the sensation of being between places with everything she ever knew quickly disappearing behind her and nothing but the hazy unknown ahead. “You just move,” Claire says, her answer so close to a whisper that it is almost lost on the open air.
Lucy chews on this along with a slice of bread, searching the rain-soaked horizon for answers. Then she turns to Claire and stares as if she is waiting for her to say something more.
“What?” Claire asks through a mouthful of food.
Lucy squints. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
“Ask you what?”
“Everyone else asks,” she says.
“Asks what?” Claire already has an inkling, the pressures of being a teenager not yet so distant, but she wants to give Lucy the opportunity to vent.
“So what are your big plans, Lucy? What are you doing now that you’ve graduated? Aren’t you going to university? Are you going to finish your bakery apprenticeship? What are you going to do with your life?”
Each is a caricature, an exaggerated performance of the voices in Lucy’s life, and Claire can guess at their identities even without having met most of them. School counselor. Her boss. A friend. But without a doubt the last one, with its baritone depth and thick accent, is her grandfather.
Claire sighs. A couple of years ago she might have asked this same question. A couple of years ago she might have had an answer prepared if someone had asked it of her. A couple of years ago she thought she knew what to expect of her life, even if none of the answers had anything to do with herself at all. But when Ginny had died…
What was Claire doing with her life?
What had Ginny done with hers?
Claire clings to this last idea, answering Lucy with a question: “What did your mom do?”
“My mom?” Lucy frowns, setting down her near-empty bowl to think, “She… she worked at the bakery counter… at a grocery store.”
“So if I asked you what your mom did with her life — that’s the answer you’d give? That she worked at a grocery store?”
Had Ginny done nothing with her life because she’d not lived long enough to build a resumé?
“So let me ask again — what did your mom do with her life?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy says, throwing up her hands in exasperation. She glances frantically around the apartment, maybe to extract the fragments of her memories from its familiarity. “Tons of things, I guess. She was a mom — she always took me everywhere with her. She baked all the time — at work, with me and Opa. She went for walks in the cemetery every Sunday. She… she…”
Claire nods with encouragement when Lucy stumbles for a moment. She bites her lip, her eyes crinkling in a nostalgic half-smile, and she continues:
“She… she liked to watch old action movies after I went to bed. She liked to have the other ladies from the store over for tea and to gossip. And she collected those silly little figurines from the Red Rose tea boxes…”
Her movements begin to slow, her chest to rise and fall with deep, calming breaths. Her smile broadens with an almost-forgotten memory. “She loved to read Harlequin romances. The ones with the cheap, pink spines. And she swore like a trucker.”
Claire nods, remembering a book shelf drooping under the weight of hardcover YA fiction and late nights spent with flashlights under the covers. A box under the bed filled with pages of scribbled fan fiction. She remembers failed baking experiments — cookies filled with half-melted jelly beans, and cupcakes stuffed with soggy M&M’s. She remembers the scent of lavender and dried flowers tucked between the pages of Order of the Phoenix.
“I don’t know,” Lucy says, interrupting Claire’s thoughts, “She just did stuff.”
“And before you?” Claire asks, reminding herself of the Ginny that existed when she wasn’t there. The Ginny who shoved secret notes in crawlspaces in their grandma’s basement. “When she was in high school? When she was a child? At what point did she ‘decide’ to start that life? At what point — what was her name?”
“At what point did she decide what being ‘Carolyn’ was going to mean?” Claire asks.
“I don’t know,” Lucy confesses with a shake of her head, “I guess she didn’t. Or she did every single day. Every day she just… lived.”
Claire exhales with a smile, “Is that so bad?”
Lucy scrunches her lips tightly and thinks about it. “Yeah, okay… but what about money and careers and stuff?”
“‘How should I make money?’ is a very different question than ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ You can change your mind — the answer can be temporary or permanent, confident or experimental. It can be a mistake that you learn from or just one stepping stone towards a goal you haven’t even conceived of yet. But what you’re going to do — that’s a decision that takes a lifetime, one that you make with every breath and every tiny change that occurs within you. Asking someone what they want to do with their life is as absurd as asking someone to describe who they are — who they will be every step of the way. We can guess, give vague hopes and impressions, but the only satisfactory answer is in the act of actually doing it.”
“So if I screw up and make the wrong decision…”
“Then you found out something doesn’t work for you. You gain a new vantage point to choose your next destination.” Claire pauses, and a flash of lightning illuminates the dim room for the briefest of moments. She waits for the thunder to follow, drowning out the heavy silence between them, before continuing. “If you only make decisions because of what other people expect — because of have to’s and shoulds — you don’t see the mistakes. You see choices made by other people. It’s easier to get angry or to shift the blame instead of learning.”
“Is that what happened with your sister?” Lucy asks.
“Every decision I ever made was for her,” Claire admits, “Choosing a local university. Not staying out late. The movies I watched, the books I read. Because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Because that’s what I thought someone who loved her would do. When I had to give something up, or I didn’t like the way things turned out, I always had an excuse. They hadn’t really been my choices after all. But they were. Living for Ginny was a choice I was making because it was easier than carrying the weight of figuring out who the hell Claire Brown was. I don’t regret that time — I wouldn’t be here in this moment if things had been different — but in hindsight I can see how little I grew back then.”
Lucy nods distractedly, and Claire hopes she is making some amount of sense. In many ways she sees Lucy as braver than herself, more independent at a younger age. People once told Claire that she was responsible for taking such good care of her sister, but she realizes Lucy is responsible in a much different way. A healthier way, maybe. A way that cares for others while leaving room for herself. A way that rejects the martyrdom that Claire once equated with being a good person.
“Okay,” Lucy says finally, continuing to eat the remains of her dinner, which Claire takes as a good sign, “Okay, yeah. Then can I ask you another question?”
“What are you doing? I mean for now?”
“Keeping you company and eating your food,” Claire points out, stealing a second slice of bread and stubbornly ignoring a question that she’s been avoiding for a long time now.
Lucy laughs, “Yeah I know, but that’s not what I meant. I mean: Who do you want to be in this moment? Is that a better question?”
Claire chews slowly, giving herself time to collect her thoughts. What does she want? She loves 53 Ganymede, its residents. She likes her job well enough, though she has a niggling suspicion that it might not suit her forever. As much as she loves horticulture, that was still a decision influenced by Ginny’s love of plants. Her decision to major in science influenced by her parents’ dream that it might lead her to find the cure for her sister’s illness, or at least a obtain a respectable position she could use to support her. Her decision not to pursue her education beyond undergrad influenced by a fear of straying too far from home. Even now, in this very moment, her mind constantly flickers to Ginny — what she would have enjoyed, what she would have been proud of
“I think I’m still learning,” Claire answers, “I think I’m still learning to be me. Does that make sense?”
Lucy stretches out her legs to reach the wooden railing extending across the doorway and leans back to look up at the ceiling and the lightning-danced shadows. Her face relaxes, as though her anxiety has faded with the last dingy dregs of sunlight. “Yes — perfect sense. Everyone has been bugging me about picking a university or choosing a career path, but I’m not ready. I don’t know what I want. Or I do: I just want to be me. I want to try things. I want to work at the bakery and maybe try a part time job somewhere. I want to learn to cook more and spend time with Opa. I want to make mistakes and feel like they meant something. I want to struggle and see what kind of things I long for in those moments. I want to find out what I want.”
“That sounds like a direction to me,” Claire says.
“Thanks Claire,” Lucy nudges Claire gently with her shoulder before setting down her empty bowl and pulling a flannel blanket around her shoulders, “For listening, and staying with me tonight.”
“Of course,” Claire says, stacking her bowl onto Lucy’s and watching the lightning strike over the lake. Pulling up her knees, she hunches over with her chin on her arm. “This is nice. Warm food, good company, and a dark stormy night.”
“The only thing missing is a scary story,” Lucy says with a chuckle. “Oh, wait! Stay here.”
Lucy jumps to her feet, shedding her blanket and nearly slipping in her sock feet on the hardwood. A moment later the living room light goes out, leaving the apartment in near-darkness. There is the sound of shuffling and the clinking of glass before a tiny flame appears in the living room. And then another. Lucy places several small glass candle holders around the living room and kitchen, including the floor near their spot by the french doors.
“Here,” Lucy says, thrusting a larger candle in a tin container toward Claire along with a pack of matches, “Light that and I’ll be right back.”
Claire smiles and shakes her head as Lucy races off back to the kitchen. It takes a couple of tries before the match ignites, and Claire pauses for a moment to watch the tiny flame and enjoy the oddly comforting scent of sulfur. She only manages to light two of the candle’s three wicks before the flame nearly licks her fingers and she has to shake it out and light a second. The flames undulate in the breeze from the open doors and Claire is so mesmerized by their frantic beauty that she jumps as Lucy dumps a pile of items beside her.
“What did you…” Claire begins, but as she makes out the bag of fat white marshmallows and the box of graham crackers hilarious understanding drowns out her confusion, “Seriously?”
Lucy shrugs, dropping down beside Claire and reclaiming her blanket. “Come on, when’s the last time you ever went camping? Wait — have you ever gone camping?”
“Yes, I’ve gone camping,” Claire says, setting the candle carefully on the floor between them, “But not since I was kid.”
“Exactly,” Lucy says, popping the plastic bag of marshmallows open and impaling one of the fluffy confections with a wooden skewer.
“Is it safe — I mean with the candle? Like the chemicals or whatever?” Claire asks, though she is already eagerly skewering her own marshmallow.
Lucy shrugs again, “It hasn’t killed me yet.”
“You’ve done this before?” Claire laughs, choosing a flame and trying to find the perfect spot to achieve that golden caramelized hue.
Lucy’s smile is sheepish when she answers, “Sometimes. By myself. If Opa’s not here or after he’s gone to bed. It’s… I dunno. Exciting I guess. Just to have my own thing.”
When Claire grins Lucy hesitates, dropping her gaze back to the flames.
“You probably think I’m such a little kid.”
“Actually I was thinking that you’re exactly my kind of person,” Claire says, lifting her skewer to inspect her marshmallow, “And that it means a lot that you wanted to share this with me.”
Lucy doesn’t answer, but her smile is no longer weighted by insecurity and so Claire hopes her friend is enjoying the evening as much as she is.
After their first chocolatey misadventure — their marshmallows begin leaking onto the candle while they struggle to open the package of graham crackers and break apart the chocolate — they make a second attempt and Lucy asks, “So… do you want to hear a scary story?”
“Maybe?” Horror is not Claire’s favourite genre — a fact she’s been meaning to tell Marcus after his last few film recommendations — and the howling of the wind leaves the old house creaking and groaning in all the wrong ways.
“Opa says 53 Ganymede is haunted.”
Claire waits a beat and then asks, “That’s it?” A part of her wants to laugh at the silliness of it. 53 Ganymede is something, but she’s not certain “haunted” is the right word.
“Seriously,” Lucy insists, her wide eyes reflecting the orange glow of the candlelight. “And it’s not just Opa; Art saw him too.”
“Him?” Claire asks.
“The ghost,” Lucy whispers, as if suddenly frightened to say the word too loudly.
“What… what does he look like?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Lucy says, sliding her marshmallow between two crackers with minimal drips this time, “But Opa says he’s maybe in his twenties or early thirties. Thin and tall. He says he couldn’t really see him well, kind of like having someone stand in your peripheral vision. Or under water, he said.”
Claire closes her eyes and sighs before taking a deep breath to hold in the laughs that are threatening to bubble over. No wonder Mack was always so unnerved. But why does that part of Declan’s curse affect some people worse than others? Claire wonders with piqued interest.
“I’m serious!” Lucy shouts through a sticky mouthful of s’more, her thick brows narrowing in offense.
“No, no — I know you are. It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?” Lucy asks, her curiousity drawing her forward over the candle to hear what Claire has to say.
But what can she say? Up until now she has shared very little of her otherworldly experiences in Newport, except with those already caught up in the city’s mysteries — Art, Marcus, Declan, Alice. In many ways those moments have felt like dreams, and Claire has often feared that sharing them carelessly might dispel the magic, like shining a light on a shadow. Until now she has never felt the temptation to break the taboo.
Lucy leans closer, her entire body radiating expectation.
At the same time, she can’t recall feeling so comfortable and at home with anyone since Ginny.
“It’s… it’s — ” How should she put it? Where does her story even begin? How can she explain something she doesn’t even understand herself?
When Claire flounders for an answer, Lucy’s mouth twists into a pout and she begins to sink back down to her spot on the floor. She grabs another marshmallow and stabs a skewer through it.
Then Claire has a stroke of inspiration. After all, why tell her when she could show her?
“Hey Lucy,” she says, calling Lucy’s attention back to her, “Do you want to meet a ghost?”