The room is circular with ceilings that are tallest in the centre, sloping down to where they meet the outer walls. It isn’t large – only the size of Claire’s bedroom, which makes sense given that this room sits above her own. Claire blinks and drops her gaze to the faded area rug as she realizes this detail, but her brain simply cannot acknowledge it as reality.
Lifting her head again, she takes in the personal details of the space. A solid wood desk is built into the wall, curving elegantly around more than half of its circumference. On its worn surface rests many things one might expect to find there – a laptop, neatly lined sketchbooks and spiral notebooks, jars of pens, pencils, and markers – but also a small cook-top and microwave with a couple of mugs, plates, and a chipped bowl resting on the top.
A half-moon bed emerges from the other half of the wall, filled with mismatched blue sheets and what may have once been a floral comforter but is now simply purple with vague pink and green splotches. There’s also a grey furry throw that looks newer, and plenty of pillows that spill over onto the floor. Many of these also look faded with age though they still exude an atmosphere of comfort.
All of this is illuminated by a spherical pendant lamp that hangs from the tallest point of the room; there are no windows here. Black lines trace its paper cover so that shadows fall in swooping arcs, leaving complex patterns over the white walls which are lined with tiny shelves holding picture frames, books, and trinkets.
Claire takes a step forward to investigate, but a shuffling beside her reminds her that she is not alone and this is not her space to explore at will. She turns, startled for a heartbeat when she finds Declan so close by her shoulder – to be fair, there isn’t much floor space to stand in. His coat is gripped in his hand where he has retrieved it from a hook beside the bed.
“Ready to go?” She asks him, smiling in hopes that it will alleviate some of the discomfort wrinkling his forehead.
He nods and opens the door behind them — somehow tall enough for his lanky height despite the slant of the ceiling — and they both step out into a burst of natural light. There is no one here to notice their presence except a vintage rocking horse and a few other antiques lining the tables along the walls, and they make their quiet way down the stairs. Mack is busy shelving by the door, but he turns to acknowledge their passing.
“Have a good day, Claire. I’ll see you around again soon I’m sure,” he says, but his eyes linger on Declan and his brow tightens despite the cheeriness of his voice. In the end he forces a smile and a nod toward the other man and returns to his work.
Claire smiles and chuckles a little once the door is closed and the bookshop is behind them. Declan looks at her, slipping eagerly into his coat and shoving his hands deep into its pockets.
“What?” He asks, looking at her and back at the shop behind them.
“He thinks you’re a ghost,” Claire says, laughing again as she recalls the various stories Mack has whispered on her visits.
“I saw that man again today,” he told her one day, “He always shows up on the third floor, but there’s no way up there. Unless… unless he can move through walls.”
Seeing as Claire can’t exactly explain the circumstances of Declan’s presence, and with a thought that it might be even more unbelievable than a haunting anyway, all she has managed to do is reassure Mack that Declan is harmless and there is nothing to worry about.
Declan seems to find the situation less humorous; “A ghost? Me?”
Claire takes in his pale skin and hair, his long and skeletal frame. She shrugs, “Given the circumstances, it’s not that surprising.”
“I guess,” he concedes as they walk the snowy Newport streets, grateful for the frail winter sunlight. An early morning silence hangs over the neighbourhood, emphasized by the crunching of their boots on the sidewalk.
“So…” Claire says to breach the emptiness between them, “I did some looking and the place we’re heading is called Empress Point. I couldn’t find a detailed map of the trail system, but we know the light came from somewhere along the shoreline; if we can find the lake and follow the shore we should stumble on something.”
“Something…” he repeats, “But what?”
“That’s the point of this trip, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he sighs and loses himself in thought for a moment before suddenly asking, “What if we get lost?”
“GPS.” Claire pulls her phone from her pocket, waving it about triumphantly and inwardly congratulating herself on the small smile she’s managed to eke out of him.
“I’m a little behind the times,” he says, sliding his own tiny flip phone out of his jacket pocket, just enough for her to see before stashing it away again like a forbidden artefact.
“You know it would make it easier to arrange things if I could call you,” Claire points out, recalling the past weeks of bookstore visits – it had felt too clandestine to sneak down into the basement to call on him at night — when she had knocked only to find him not at home. (Not that those visits had been completely fruitless; her book shelf was certainly much fuller than it had been a short time ago.)
Only once, aside from today’s appointment, had he actually answered when she’d knocked. That had only been two days ago, and then he’d stepped outside and they had planned today’s outing as they browsed through the store; today had been the first time she’d gotten a good glimpse at the place he called home.
Claire is so engrossed in recalling the sparse, if charming, details of Declan’s attic that she has to ask him to repeat his number so she can input it into her contacts. Still her mind races in circles over the tiny room, raising a series of uncomfortable questions.
“Declan,” she says, stowing her phone and her cold hands back into her pockets, “Can I ask you something personal?”
He squints at her suspiciously, “I guess?”
“Why do you live in that room?”
His face reddens a little and his grimace ignites a spark of guilt in the pit of Claire’s stomach.
“I mean,” she hurries to continue, “How did you end up there? How did you even find it?”
His shoulders and chest heave and a cloud of white breath emerges in a dramatic sigh.
“I’m sorry,” Claire begins, but he shakes his head and forces a melancholy smile.
“The bookshop used to be an antique store,” he tells her.
She nods, “I think Mack mentioned something about that.”
“It was my mom’s.”
“Your mom’s?” Claire asks, already beginning to recognize some of the mechanisms that set this story in motion.
“Yeah. She was like me –,” he says as they both stop in front of a large sign, the only thing standing between a vacant, gravel-strewn parking lot and heavily wooded parklands, “bad timing.”
Over the sign, which reads Empress Point followed by a list of trail courtesies and rules, is another sign that reads: Trail Closed Due to Unsafe Winter Conditions.
Until this moment, Claire has always made a point of following the rules; she is not fond of conflict and the thrill of transgression has always seemed one of terror, not excitement. Even now as she steps forward and examines the small map in the bottom right corner of the sign, her heart pounds uncomfortably in her chest. Her legs are stiff and tingly as she walks toward the two posts that mark the entrance to the trail system. When she steps over the chain that has been strung between them, she is certain for a moment that she will faint. Or maybe vomit.
“Where are you going?” Declan calls after her, still lingering by the sign.
Claire turns to him, lifting her head and hoping her voice will not shake when she speaks. “I make my own timing.” And before she can doubt herself she pivots and keeps walking.
There is a ringing of metal behind her as Declan steps over the chain, and a swift crunch of footsteps.
“What were you saying about your mom?” Claire asks, to take both of their minds off of misfortune and possible disaster.
He glances back once or twice, but eventually falls into step beside her and answers:
“She was cursed too. First, really. I was fine until…” There is a pause and Claire knows what he will say next: “Until she passed away. Then it was like all of a sudden nothing seemed to go right. I mean, I’d just lost my mom but it was more than that.”
Claire nods, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt. Sure, he’s annoyingly pessimistic at times, but wouldn’t she feel that way if she were cursed? She looks to him to continue.
“I moved into a one bedroom apartment and had to quit school to pay the rent. My mom’s shop was already on its way out so I picked up an extra job on the side. Then the place where I was hired went out of business. So I got another job which suddenly decided to downsize. I had successful interviews only to find out later that if I’d only been a couple days earlier… anyway, I ended up moving into the shop for a while, but then I couldn’t afford that either. Accidents and unlucky circumstances kept piling up – electrical problems, thefts… sometimes I would get items in only days after a customer had been looking for that exact thing.”
“That’s one hell of a string of bad luck,” Claire agrees.
“In the end I had to let go of the shop. I didn’t know where I was going to live. I remember just wandering around, looking at the things my mom had collected… and there it was. A door on the top floor I’d never seen before. I moved in, waiting for the new owner to kick me out, but he never did. No one else has ever seen the door before. Except you,” he says, turning to inspect her as they shuffle through the deep snow concealing the narrow pathway.
“I couldn’t, until you told me about it. I think it depends whether you want someone to see it or not.” Claire tries to recall the vague details Art has shared with her.
“Maybe,” he agrees.
Claire retrieves her phone from her pocket, trying to orient herself towards the lake. “I think we should take this path,” she says, pointing to ribbon of white winding itself between clumps of skeletal trees.
He follows her without question, which makes Claire feel proud, but also nervous. She doesn’t want to let him – or her own curiosity for that matter – down.
“Thank you,” he says suddenly, interrupting her thoughts, “for dragging me out here.”
Claire laughs, “Don’t thank me yet.”
“No,” he says so sternly that she stops walking in order to meet his haunting, grey eyes, “It’s not just the lantern. Thank you for just… planning this whole thing. Helping me. Believing this whole crazy thing.”
Claire chuckles more heartily this time, “Newport has taught me to be a very open-minded person.”
“Oh?” Declan says, hurrying after her as she continues down the path.
“You called it a curse before,” Claire says, dodging his inquiry, “Why?”
Declan shrugs, “Mom called it that whenever things went wrong for her. At first I thought it was just her way of coping when things went wrong, but as I got older I realized that life was different for us than other people. I asked her about it, but she would just smile and say that I didn’t have to worry about it. I don’t think she realized it was the kind of thing that passed on.”
“What about your dad?” Claire ventures, hoping she isn’t touching upon a sore spot, “Would he know?”
“No,” Declan says, and Claire is relieved that there is no pain or bitterness in his tone. It is simply a matter-of-fact. “I don’t think mom and him were ever close. I’ve met him once or twice, but he’s never been a part of our lives. I’m pretty sure he left the country a few years before mom died.”
“And the blue flames?” Claire asks, “How do they play into all of this?”
“I don’t know,” Declan says, “Maybe they don’t. But it’s the only other thing I’ve ever encountered that I can’t explain. So maybe…”
“Maybe they’re connected?”
“It’s worth a shot,” he says which, Claire realizes, is the most optimistic thing he’s said all morning.
“I think we’re getting close to the lake,” Claire says, pulling her scarf up further over her chin and burying her gloved hands deeper into her pockets. “It’s getting windy. And cold.”
She notices that Declan is shivering under his thin coat and she wishes she would have thought to bring an extra scarf or gloves. Or at least a thermos. Perhaps they aren’t as prepared as she thought.
“Are you cold? We can head back. I think I can get us here faster next time. We could wait for a warmer day,” she offers, but he shakes his head.
“Let’s at least get to the lake,” he says.
She bites her lip both against the wind that has grown so strong that it seems to resist their every step and against the frustrating concerns she can’t seem to shake.
“Declan,” she calls, shouting to be heard over the near-deafening howl.
“Claire!” he calls back, but not because he has heard her — just ahead, though it is obscured by the eddying snow blown up from the forest floor, Claire can see water. She can even hear its crashing waves against the sand and rocks. Declan bolts past her, his long legs carrying him easily over the deep and shifting snow. Claire hurries to catch up, her much shorter legs less successful at maneuvering through the drifts.
“Claire! Look!” he calls again. Claire squints against the snow that is now lashing against her cheeks and clouding her vision. Clouds are rapidly gathering above her, and in their dimness she sees the source of Declan’s excitement: a tiny blue flame, perhaps a hundred metres down the shoreline. Closing her eyes against the wet flakes now pelting against her, she sprints after Declan across the snow-covered sand.
She opens her eyes just in time to avoid colliding into Declan’s back and instead clings to his coat for support as she inhales a stinging breath of frigid air. He doesn’t seem to notice, his gaze aimed upwards, over the treeline.
A tiny speck of blue flickers on the mountain ridge across the lake, almost concealed amongst the towering pines. Declan reaches out and squeezes her arm tightly just as the wind finally ceases, taking with it the cloud cover. The sun reclaims its weak reign of the morning sky as both blue lights shimmer and then vanish.
Claire looks up to Declan’s face, wondering if his eyes are red from the wind, or what he’s just witnessed.
“Declan?” She whispers.
Looking down at her, and becoming conscious of his grip, he lets go of her arm and wipes his face against his sleeve. To her surprise, he smiles. “That was some pretty damn good timing, wasn’t it?”
“It really was,” Claire says, reflecting his smile.
Together they inspect the lakeside lantern – identical to the one on the pier, if slightly more out of place – and try to estimate the location of the third: a venture for another day.
Neither speaks as they retrace their steps, trying to commit them – and everything about this day – to memory.
When they reach the parking lot, still as barren as when they left it, Claire offers to take him out for a warm drink. He declines.
“I should see if there’s a shift I can pick up today. I mean, I’m feeling a little lucky after that,” he tells her sheepishly.
“Where do you work?”
“Just a little restaurant downtown — June’s. I bus tables and wash dishes and stuff. I was working some night shifts at a factory in the East end too but… layoffs…”
They walk the streets, more lively now as people head to work and school and shopping, and Claire thinks about what Declan has told her. And, more importantly, what he hasn’t.
“Declan,” Claire says, recalling her thoughts from earlier, “Your room… it’s amazing. But…”
“It’s small,” Declan says, predicting her thoughts.
She nods, “I mean, mine is too, but… I noticed you had some cooking stuff in there.”
“I’m okay,” he tells her firmly, “I have enough food and stuff.”
“Actually it’s just that… I didn’t see a sink… or a washroom…” Claire’s face is hot with embarrassment for broaching the topic, but her concern burns hotter and urges her on.
“Oh,” Declan says, “Yeah. That’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” She asks, but he is staring stubbornly at his shoes.
“I’m okay,” he repeats.
“Declan,” Claire says, “Sara told me 53 Ganymede is for people who need it. I think she could help.”
He opens his mouth to protest but Claire continues, “She won’t be angry. Trust me.”
He closes his mouth and considers it. “What if she doesn’t believe me?”
Claire frowns, her eyebrows sinking almost comically low in an attempt not to grin, “Oh, don’t worry. I don’t think that will be a problem.”
Declan sighs in defeat, “Okay. But, give me a little time, okay?”
Claire nods, “Of course.”
They walk the rest of the way back to the bookshop in silence, though Claire is oddly aware of his closeness beside her. She hopes it is a sign that her questions will not make him retreat and that he might consider her suggestion seriously.
“Thank you, Claire,” he says, at the foot of the concrete stairs leading to the bookstore.
“Let me know when we can do this again,” she says, waving as he mounts the first two steps to the door. A sudden idea strikes her, “And I might know someone who can help us next time.”
“Oh?” Declan says, looking down at her with interest.
“Well…” Claire weighs the improbability of her new idea and then dismisses her doubts with a mischievous grin. It is worth a try. “Let’s just say I know a man who’s really good at finding things.”
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash