There is a warm quietness embracing the streets this morning, a not-quite stillness like the eye of a storm. The sun is already well above the horizon, igniting the windows of houses and parked cars in blinding shades of orange and gold, and it is late enough that the bustle of students and commuters has passed.
Claire inhales the late morning air, immersing herself in its temporary calmness and turns to inspect the tall figure striding along beside her. For the first time since she met him, Marcus looks rested: his dark eyes wide and clear, his brown skin even and almost glowing in the sunshine. It seems surreal to see him here, walking the daylit streets alongside her in his wrinkled jeans and worn leather jacket, no rush to his gait and no distraction in his gaze. A planned outing and not a mysterious happenstance. In many ways it feels to Claire like a waking dream — a mythological creature who has strayed into the world of mortals.
If everything goes as planned — which Claire doubts more than she cares to admit — then a morning jaunt with Marcus will be the least unlikely thing to happen today.
“You sure you don’t mind spending your day off like this?” Claire asks him, not for the first time since he agreed to her crazy plan.
A cartoonish roll of his eyes tells her his answer still hasn’t changed.
“I just… feel kind of guilty,” she admits.
A gentle laugh. “For what?”
“For, you know… asking you to find something when you finally get a break…”
He glances at her while they walk, his mouth gathering to the side in solemn contemplation.
“It’s not the same,” he says finally, “To be honest, you’ve snagged my curiosity. And at least it might actually help someone.”
“The things you find usually help someone, don’t they?”
He shrugs. “Who knows. But it’s nice to make the decision for a change.”
Claire remembers Alice’s words. Her story about her father. “Did you… Did you ever enjoy finding?”
His head drops, his eyes trained on his sun-faded boots as he chuckles cynically. “In the beginning. When it was new and exciting and I felt special and needed instead of…”
“You mean when it felt like it does today?” Claire ventures, clenching her fists and praying she hasn’t gone too far.
Marcus smiles at her, assuaging her apprehension.
“Sort of,” he says, “Except without the benefit of good company.”
Claire returns his smile before stopping and tilting her head toward the book shop. They mount the steps, their feet slapping the pavement in time.
“You’ve really never been here before?” She asks before reaching for the door handle.
Marcus shakes his head, inspecting the name on the window.
“Not sure how anyone finds the place,” he mutters.
“That’s part of the appeal,” Claire says, holding the door open for him.
The way Marcus’ eyes widen and his head turns to take in the floor to ceiling shelves along the walls and up the stairs is incredibly satisfying to Claire. She grins at his fascination.
“Oh, hello Claire,” a voice calls from the other end of the hall.
“Hi Mack,” she answers, inwardly laughing at the way his attention quickly snaps back to Declan perusing the books on a shelf not far from his desk. Mack’s gaze is suspicious, even frightened, but he conceals it when Declan turns and approaches Claire.
“Ready to go?” She asks him.
“Got called for a job interview this morning. Really great place. Full time,” he tells her.
“Oh?” She asks, wondering why he didn’t call to cancel earlier
“I did what you said.”
Claire is confused, her brows sinking in failed remembrance. “What did I…”
“I made my own timing,” he said with a smile, “I said no.”
“Is that okay?” She asks, seeing the uncertainty tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Something would have happened eventually… A lay off, or an accident. Something like that. But if we learn something today… Maybe next time…”
Claire nods in understanding. “Let’s go,” she says, but when she turns to leave she realizes that Marcus has drifted away into the shop. She turns in a quick circle, but he isn’t anywhere in her line of sight.
“See anything you like?” A voice asks from the room to her left, and Claire realizes that Mackenzie is no longer at his post at his desk. Peeking around the corner through the glittering motes of dust that dance in front of the window, Claire sees both Marcus and Mack crouching down to examine a series of worn paperbacks on the bottom-most shelf.
“I spend a lot of time travelling,” she hears Marcus tell him, “These would last me a few months at least. I can’t believe you have them…”
“They were my favourite when I was a teenager,” Mack confesses, pushing himself to his feet with an audible crack of his knees, “That used to be my set.”
“Can’t believe you’d get rid of them,” Marcus mumbles, pulling a handful of the squat volumes from the shelf and stacking them before reaching for more.
Mack smiles, leaning down to grab a portion of the growing pile, “My grandfather managed to track down signed editions of every volume, so I can’t really justify keeping these copies. He was… Well let’s just say he had a great passion for well curated collections.”
Marcus stands, lifting the remaining books with him and looking at Mack with a hint of awe. Mack grins and awkwardly brushes a strand of curls out of his eyes with his free hand.
Not wanting to interrupt but also feeling Declan’s eagerness to begin their quest, Claire takes a tentative step into the front room.
Her soft footstep startles Marcus who turns to look at her, then down at his pile of books and up at Mack in quick succession.
“Oh I guess this isn’t the best time…” He begins.
“I can set them aside for you,” Mack offers.
Marcus hesitates, looking down at the books and up to Mack again as if considering something.
“I’m here a lot,” Claire says, “I can always pick them if you’re away…”
“No,” Marcus interjects, and then adds in a gentler tone: “Thanks Claire. I can make time to pick them up. I’d like to look around more next time. If that’s alright?”
He looks up to Mack again.
“Yeah, yeah of course. Here, let me take those.”
Mack takes the remaining books, holding the stack with practiced ease in his lanky arms.
Claire and Marcus both thank Mack and return to the entrance where Declan waits. They are just filing down the steps when Mack emerges from the door, his face reddened as if the books had been heavier than they seemed.
“Um, wait. What’s your name?” He asks as he fiddles with something in his hands.
“Marcus,” Marcus tells him, turning and taking a half step back toward the door.
“I’m Mack.” Mack extends a business card which Marcus takes and examines. “I keep kind of irregular hours. If you call… That’s my cell on the back… Then I can make sure… I mean it sounds like you’re really busy…”
“Thanks,” Marcus says, smoothly pocketing the card with a smile, “I’ll give you a call later.”
“Okay,” Mack nods, slowly backing into the shop, “Sounds good.”
“See you soon, Mack,” Claire calls as they descend to the street and he gives a small wave as he disappears behind the black and gold door.
The three companions walk a few blocks in silence until Claire can no longer contain herself.
“You’re going to call him, right?”
Marcus only smiles mischievously and shrugs. “So, where exactly are we going?”
“Up there,” Claire points to the escarpment just visible over the houses and buildings ahead of them.
“We’ll… That’s vague,” Marcus says, squinting at the green haze of trees that Claire has indicated.
“That’s why we were hoping you could help,” Declan explains, and his wide eyes are a plea for help.
Marcus puts his hands in his pockets and looks up and ahead as he walks, contemplating their destination. Claire imagines he is holding Mack’s card, turning it over and over inside the pocket while he thinks.
“The lanterns only light on rainy days,” she tells him and Declan adds:
“Or snowy. It was snowing last time.”
“Right,” Claire continues, “and it doesn’t stay lit for long. Its easy to miss.”
“Even without bad timing,” Declan interrupts again, his eyes flitting desperately from Claire to Marcus.
“I’ll try my best,” Marcus sighs, “but it doesn’t always work that way. I can’t always find the things I’m actually looking for.”
Declan steels his expression, nodding. “Thank you for agreeing to try anyway.”
They continue walking together, following Claire through residential areas, past shops and restaurants, and then finally through stretches of land dotted with warehouses and industrial buildings.
“Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have met at Ganymede and gone from there?” Marcus asks, shading his eyes from the sun and trying to catch a glimpse of the escarpment over the hulking mass of one of the factories.
“If we went straight there, yes,” Claire answers without slowing her place or missing a step, ” but Declan and I talked about it and, rather than stumbling about blindly, we thought it might be better to start from where we left off. That way we can catch our bearings and give you a chance to… I don’t know… pick up the scent? Visualize what we’re looking for?”
“Hmm,” Marcus says, “Might help.”
Finally they enter the trail parking lot, fuller now that the weather is more hospitable. They don’t stop to view the map this time — Claire is certain of the way even though it was buried in snow last time she was here.
Today the trail is welcoming and green, if a little slick with mud from the recent spring rains. The hum of insects and the constant bird chatter fills the determined silence between the companions, easing Claire’s urgency enough that she remembers to savour the leafy tang of the fresh air.
As the trio makes the final turn onto a path that Claire knows will lead to the rocky shore, they are halted by the unexpected presence of several expansive puddles.
“The lake must have flooded,” Declan says, and Claire is frustrated by the defeat that escapes with his words. Before she can say anything, Marcus takes a tentative step forward, his boots squishing through a muddy patch between two puddles. Then another step, carefully avoiding a trickling path of water flowing from one puddle to another.
Claire looks down at her tall rubber boots, a habit from working in spring gardens, and then at Declan’s worn running shoes. Noticing her concern, he rushes after Marcus before she can tell him to wait. With nothing else keeping her behind, Claire follows their deep foot prints, some already filling to become miniature lakes of their own.
When they can go no farther, the bank of the river swollen far out onto the shoreline, Marcus asks: “Well?”
Claire glances about, trying to determine the location of the last lantern in the watery expanse. Declan’s gaze is fixed on a single point.
About four feet in from the water’s extended reach a peaked roof of grey stone emerges, darkened where the tiny waves lap at its sides. The sun, now high above them, is bright enough that Claire can just barely make out the vague shape of the body and pillar of the lantern under the lake.
Claire peeks through the trees up to the escarpment, trying to relive their moment of discovery.
“The flame was there… I think,” she says, pointing, “Not too far from the highway bridge, and not quite half-way down.”
Declan nods in agreement.
Marcus looks from the tip of the lake lantern and up to where Claire points. He exhales heavily.
“Alright. It’s a long ways away… Maybe once it’s closer…”
“Let’s try,” Declan says, heading back the way they came, “There’s a bus stop beside the highway. Some staircases leading down the escarpment…”
Claire looks to Marcus who shrugs before hurrying after Declan. Rearranging her backpack, she squelches after them, enjoying the gentle burn in her legs from the effort. Even if they come up empty-handed, at least it will have been a good excuse to be outdoors after her recent recovery from Noro virus.
Declan leads them to an appropriate bus stop and Claire reaches into her backpack to pass around bottles of water.
“At least one of us came prepared,” she teases. Marcus tries to reach over and look what else is inside, but Claire tugs the bag back.
“Not yet,” she tells him, eliciting stares of curiosity from both men.
“It’s food, isn’t it?” Marcus says, though it sounds less a question and more a statement.
Claire shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Is it?” Declan looks at the bag eagerly and Claire secures it snugly over her shoulders.
“Who knows?” She says with exaggerated nonchalance.
“I do,” Marcus answers, but the bus arrives and Claire climbs on without acknowledging him.
Claire picks once of the few empty seats and Declan drops into the one beside her. Marcus stands, holding onto a metal bar and leaning in close to talk to them.
“So,” he begins, “what happens if we find what we’re looking for?”
Claire looks to Declan for the answer. For a moment he turns away, toward the window, his brows knitted in thought — or perhaps frustration.
“I don’t know,” he admits, “Maybe there are more after that. Or maybe I’ll find an answer.”
“What makes you think these lanterns have anything to do with your problem anyway?”
“I don’t know,” he says again, painfully aware of the repetition, “It just… feels important. I know it sounds stupid… And it probably is… But I don’t know where else to look for answers.”
“I guess I can’t really argue with that,” Marcus concedes, rubbing the stubble on his chin, “But if there isn’t an answer? If this curse… bad luck… bad timing… whatever… is just your lot in life…”
Declan looks away out the window again.
Claire wants to chide Marcus for feeding Declan’s worst fears, but she knows he is talking about his own lot as much as Declan’s.
“Would it be such a waste?” She asks, and Declan turns to her in surprise.
“You met me because of the lanterns,” she reminds him, “and now Marcus too.”
“And you convinced me to talk to Sara,” he continues for her, a hint of a smile dancing across thin lips, “And she gave me a bathroom.”
“Wait, she what? How?” Claire thinks back to the tiny tower room, unable to imagine enough spare space for extra plumbing.
“It’s one of those things you have to see.” He laughs and, though it is brief, Claire finds it fills her with a quiet warmth like the morning sun.
“Anyway,” she says, trying to steer the conversation back on track, “It doesn’t matter what we find. It will have been worth it.”
Marcus sighs and rolls his eyes, “Yeah yeah. Journey not the destination and all that. I just don’t want him to get too disappointed.”
“You don’t think you can find it?” Declan asks, but without his previous desperation.
“Not sure yet,” he says, “but even if I can, what about the next one? And the one after that? Who knows how long this trail goes for.”
Marcus watches out the front window as he speaks, trailing off as if he could see the tedious extent of their task ahead of him.
“You don’t have to help. I mean…I appreciate it, but if we don’t find anything today, or if it’s just lantern after lantern…”
“Don’t worry Declan,” Claire interrupts, turning to accuse Marcus, “he’s enjoying himself too much to give up now.”
Marcus puts up his free hand in surrender: “Alright, alright. I’ll admit I’m curious.”
“He likes detective stories,” Claire pretends to whisper to Declan.
“Okay. You’ve got me. Though it feels a little more Indiana Jones than Maltese Falcon.”
“You like that too,” Claire points out, understanding now the exhilaration he must have felt when he first discovered his knack for finding. A curious boy, compelled to travel the world in search of mysterious artifacts. She wonders why the excitement began to wane — was it the lack of answers? The mundane discoveries? Or maybe the loneliness of living a life parallel to everyone else?
“I guess it hasn’t been so bad. Its been a while since I played in the mud. Or got a cute librarian’s number,” he says, pulling out the card and reading it over once more. “Do you think we’ll make it back in time for dinner?”
“He’s not a librarian,” Claire scolds, “He’s an entrepreneur. And I guess it depends what we find.”
Marcus pockets the card once more and grins like he’s about to say something witty, but instead his expression fades and his attention drifts to the front of the bus. His sudden distraction is familiar to Claire, but her hope is too tenuous to voice. She waits, but Marcus remains silent until eventually Declan pulls the yellow cord and they depart onto a concrete path surrounded by a tangled arrangement of nature and domesticity.
“There’s a lot of waterfalls around here,” Declan says as they follow him along the path to a metal staircase climbing down a tree covered incline.
“Just little ones,” he explains when Marcus squints at him with a fair dose of skepticism, “My mom used to pack us lunch and we’d come explore the trails here and picnic, watching the water trickling down a cliff as we ate. Or sometimes we would walk into Marriton just down the road and find a place to eat before catching the bus home. It didn’t feel like so many things went wrong while we were out here.”
Declan’s mom had carried the curse before she died, Claire remembers. She watches Declan smile, and she feels she could trace the bittersweet memories in the crinkle beside his eye and the lines of his mouth; she has seen them often enough in her own.
Being the most familiar with the area, Declan leads the way this time, pointing out old trails nearly overgrown with knee-high grass and weeds, and tiny trickles of water cutting their way through the steepest of the rock faces. He takes them from staircase to staircase, trail to trail, afraid to take them too far from the sturdy dirt paths and metal handrails for fear of sliding rocks and steep falls.
All the while Marcus glances behind him, or to the left or right, tilting his head as though listening to something. Maybe a bird, Claire tells herself, though she knows better. She uses a narrow path as an excuse to fall behind Declan and inquire.
“There is something,” Marcus confides, “but… but I can’t say for sure what it is.”
“Why don’t we check?” Claire whispers, not wanting to inflate Declan’s hopes without good reason.
Marcus looks towards the source again in frustration. “Because it’s too high up. It’s something different, Claire. I’m trying hard to find the lantern but I told you before, I don’t get a damned say in what or when I find.”
Claire hesitates, unsure what to say that won’t make things worse. Perhaps Alice had been wrong when she’d described finding as a passion and a talent, maybe it really was more akin to Declan’s curse.
“Are you okay to go on?” She asks him, recalling the painful urgency he had felt the last time she had witnessed his need to track down some opaquely meaningful object.
He nods and they hurry to catch up with Declan who is already several steps up a new staircase.
“Getting cloudy,” Marcus mumbles, gesturing toward a dark mass of cloud encroaching on the otherwise clear sky from behind them.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and it will rain,” Claire says.
Declan ignores them, leaning over a railing and looking through a conspicuous clump of trees to his right, but finds no sign of smooth grey stone. He continues on, climbing upwards while carefully examining his surroundings.
It is Claire who eventually spots it: a flash of light that shouldn’t be there, about halfway up and several feet away from the staircase. Not blue, but the gold of sunlight. On a second inspection she understands why its appearance drew her eye — the light pours through a hole in a particularly thick and ancient oak.
“Look,” she points from their place on the stairs, and the others lean over the railing to see.
There — about chest height — is a stone lantern embedded in the trunk, large enough that it creates a window through the heart of the tree. They climb over the railing to get a closer look, each of them in turn reaching out to touch the smooth stone, to examine the jagged lines of the tree’s bark, to walk from one side to the other and peer through the window from a different perspective.
It is Marcus who asks the question: “So what do we do now?”
Declan squints up at the sky, the light fading as a growing breeze carries the darkness towards them. “Do you think those clouds will amount to anything?”
Claire notes that he doesn’t say anything about the curse keeping the rain away.
“Maybe,” she says.
They stand around the tree, awkwardly waiting for something to happen. Marcus scratches the back of his neck and stares back at the staircase. He curses under his breath.
“Marcus?” Claire prompts
“I can’t wait anymore, Claire,” he says, a tremble in his hand exposing the effort it has taken to remain here.
Declan turns to Claire for an explanation. She looks longingly at the promising clouds, and sighs. “There’s something he needs to find.”
Without even a glance skyward Declan nods. “We know where it is now anyway. We can come back.”
“You don’t have to follow me. God knows where whatever it is might be,” Marcus protests, but both Claire and Declan are already leaving the tree behind and walking to the stairs. Marcus hurries to catch up, and then follows the tugging sensation in his stomach.
Up. Up the stairs and over some paths and up another staircase to the very top. A broad, wooden viewing platform extends here out over the escarpment. Behind it are streets lined with luxurious homes straddling the city line between Newport and the township of Merriton. Marcus, Claire, and Declan stand against the wooden rail and look out over the city sprawling beneath them.
“So, what is it?” Declan asks, glancing around for some lost trinket or mysterious artefact.
Marcus’s mouth twists, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “I don’t know. I… I think it’s this place?”
“Maybe there’s another lantern here?” Claire asks, and they set to work exploring the area. It doesn’t take long: the platform is bare except for a couple picnic tables, a coin-operated metal viewing glass too heavily scratched to be of use, and some initials carved into the wooden planks.
Claire looks up when the first drop of rain strikes her face. A light shower is beginning, and out of curiosity she searches the horizon for a hint of blue flame.
“Guys,” she calls, returning to the edge of the platform. They join her, and all three are captivated by what is unfolding below.
A dim blue light dances between the foliage of a massive oak beneath them, and across the lake two more lights flicker, one on the pier and the other reflected on the water’s surface. They can even make out a watery blue shimmer on the flooded shoreline to their right.
What they can’t explain are the dozens of other blue lights, flickering to life all over Newport. One by one they appear — behind houses, under bridges, on the tops of towering skyscrapers — with no order or pattern that any of them can detect. An entire network of blue lights extending out over the places they’d passed by every day without ever noticing.
And before any one of them can catch their breath to speak, each light wavers and vanishes once more.
Still, there is silence. Even the rain, blowing away as quickly as it has come in, relents and leaves them to their thoughts.
It is Marcus who breaks the silence, exploding with a laugh that startles the other two.
“Well damn,” he says.
“Do you know…?” Claire begins and Marcus shakes his head.
“Not a clue,” he laughs, then after taking a deep breath, “But I’ll ask around.”
“You okay, Declan?” Claire asks and he nods, still watching the city below.
“I’ve been here before, with Mom. But I don’t remember…”
“Sometimes we don’t notice things until we’re looking for them,” Marcus says.
“So, do we just head back now?” Declan asks, finally tearing himself from the view.
Marcus shrugs. “Seems like a pretty good place for a picnic.”
“Maybe if we had food,” Claire jokes, already tossing her bag onto one of the tables; it is a little damp but the returning sun will dry it — and them — soon enough. She pulls out containers and more bottles of water.
“You’ve been carrying all that this whole time?” Marcus exclaims, sitting on the corner of the table and picking through the contents of her bag, “You’re stronger than you look. I thought you worked with flowers all day?”
“Yeah. Dirt’s pretty heavy Marcus.”
“So,” he says, “We doing this again some time?”
Claire smiles as Declan’s eyes widen with surprise and anticipation.
“Yeah,” he says, “Yeah of course. Whenever you’re free.”
“My flight leaves tomorrow morning,” Marcus says, taking a bite out of half a turkey sandwich from one of Claire’s containers, “but I’ll be back in a couple days. Well, probably.”
“What about tonight?” Claire asks, too exhilarated to hide her eagerness and curiosity.
“I’ve got plans, actually,” he says.
Marcus finishes his sandwich in three large bites and then takes several steps away, pulling a sleek smartphone out of his chest pocket. He fishes out a small white rectangle from a side pocket, looking at it closely as he dials.
Claire shakes her head and rolls her eyes to Declan who smiles in return.
On their way home all three survey their surroundings with a new determination and a sense that the familiar isn’t as certain as they had once thought. And that night, when Claire stares out her bedroom windows with the darkness pressing in at the glass, she feels her heart race with a novel excitement. The city is still just a stranger she is beginning to get to know, a familiar face with enough mysteries lying just below the surface that it would take several lifetimes to solve them all — Claire grins at her transparent reflection stretched out over the silhouette of the city — not that she isn’t determined to try.
Thanks for reading the latest installment of 53 Ganymede. Just a quick reminder that if you’d like to help more people discover the series, you can head over to Web Fiction Guide and leave a review. You can also leave a comment below if you’d like to let me know what you think or share with your friends and followers on social media! Thanks again for your support and I hope you’ll come back for next month’s installment.