The room is thick with darkness, its contents shapeless and concealed. Then — for the span of a heartbeat — everything is illuminated, bursts of colour and form momentarily replacing the void before being plunged into a blackness somehow deeper than before. Four more heartbeats before the crack and rumble of thunder and the violent torrent of rain against the window pane.
Claire stares blindly into the darkness, silently counting between flashes and rumbles — a habit from childhood. She recalls other nights, her sister pressed close against her side as they counted together and then fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Tonight sleep doesn’t come so easily, and Claire feels alone in her tiny bed. Reaching a hand down over her sheets, she finds the small warmth of Beans curled against her thigh. She scratches his ear and he licks sleepily at her fingers before falling back asleep. The dog hardly notices as she sighs and slips out of the bed; Claire envies his easy slumber.
In the kitchen Claire flicks a switch and light floods the small apartment, not quite reaching the shadowy corners of her bedroom. The intermittent thunder, combined with the sound of the downpour and the way the darkness seems to hem in the electric light, gives Claire an odd sense of isolation. She pours herself a drink of water and leans against the counter to drink it, still counting the seconds between lightning and thunder.
As she counts she notices other sounds concealed beneath the tumult of the storm: footsteps from above and a high-pitched wail from below.
A glance at the clock tells her it is not quite two in the morning. Making a split second decision, she fills the kettle and rifles through the fridge as it boils. She stuffs a container of fresh local strawberries and a paper bag with two chocolate croissants into a canvas bag.
The kettle clicks off and she hurriedly fills two mugs: Chai for one, and her favourite chamomile blend for the other. Throwing the bag over her shoulder, she carefully lifts the mugs and peers into her bedroom one last time to see that Beans is still content on her bed.
The hall, when she steps into it, is dangerously dark and Claire has to step carefully down the stairs, each mug teetering in a delicate balancing act. With every step the wailing grows louder, occasionally stopping for a moment before continuing with a sputter and a cough.
Claire stands at the source of the noise and hesitates for a moment before gently knocking. She hopes she isn’t being intrusive.
Violet opens the door, cautiously peeking out at first, and then throwing the door wide. Avery — the newest Gallagher addition — rests against her right shoulder, his face flushed and wet with tears, drool, and snot.
“Need a break?” Claire offers, thrusting the mugs into the dim light that spills from the apartment.
“Oh my God, yes,” she says, holding the door with her foot as Claire enters.
Claire visits the Gallaghers often in the daytime, playing on the toy-strewn carpet with the children while daylight floods the apartment through the towering living room windows. Now, the only light comes from a single bulb in the galley-style kitchen, leaving the remaining rooms drowning in darkness. The floor, usually concealed beneath toys, homework, and crayons, is barren; the only signs of Wesley and Rory are the bright paintings and drawings on the fridge and their smiling faces hanging in an oversized frame on the dining room wall.
They’ll have to update that picture, Claire thinks idly as she sets the mugs and bag onto the dining room table.
She reaches out to take Avery, trying to catch his attention while he continues to bawl. She bounces him gently and gestures toward the food and drink with her head.
“Chai to wake you up or chamomile to put you to sleep,” she tells Violet, raising her voice over the baby’s cries, “Help yourself to everything else.”
Violet takes Claire’s mug, the one with the blue, Nordic-patterned fox she has filled with Chai, and inhales deeply. “Thank you,” she says. Or at least that’s what Claire assumes she says, deafened as she is by the baby’s cries.
“Could he use a change?” Claire asks and Violet shrugs, sinking into a chair.
“Might help,” she answers.
Claire shushes the baby, bouncing him into the nursery his parents have made and then down onto the change table. Claire doesn’t have much experience with babies, but she makes a point to help Violet and Jamie when she can. At first the baby’s screams had overwhelmed her, but over the past two weeks she has watched the circles deepen under Violet’s eyes and her desire to help has outgrown her insecurities.
While she changes Avery’s diaper, she hums a tune she had often sung to Ginny on her most difficult nights. The ones that made Claire wonder if there’d be a night they wouldn’t get through together. Long before that night actually came.
Claire turns off the light in the nursery and lifts Avery into her arms, swaying in an intricate dance and continuing her song until he finally succumbs to an exhausted sleep. Not daring to disturb this peace by trying to put him down in his crib, she returns to the main room with him and finds Violet wrapped around her mug on the couch, staring at the bowl of strawberries on the table.
Seeing Claire and the now quiet baby she attempts to smile. “Thank you so much,” she says again.
“I couldn’t sleep anyway,” Claire explains, sitting beside Violet with the baby nestled against her chest, “You sure you don’t want to try to get some sleep?”
“Honestly?” Violet says, staring tiredly into space, “I just appreciate the break. And the company. Jamie and I have to take turns so at least one of us can function for the kids and it… it’s nice. Just drinking a tea. Seeing a friendly face.”
Claire nods, not because she understands but because she accepts that this is what Violet needs right now. In the back of her mind she wonders if anyone had been there to do this for her mom when she’d had her. Or when she’d had Ginny. All those nights Claire had spent awake with Ginny as a child, she’d forgotten her mother must have once done the same for the both of them.
“I feel so terrible for him,” Violet whispers, staring down into the tiny face, as peaceful now as it was distraught only minutes ago. “They think it’s an allergy. I can’t eat anything with dairy.”
“Oh, sorry,” Claire says, glancing back toward the untouched croissants on the table.
Violet smiles and shakes her head, not taking her eyes from her son. “I don’t mind. It’s already helping… this is actually the easiest night we’ve had all week.”
Both women turn their heads toward the click of an opening door. The children’s names are painted across the brightly coloured wood, but it is Jamie who emerges, bleary-eyed and bed-headed.
“Everything okay?” He inquires through a yawn and then, “Oh, hi Claire.”
“The kids still sleeping?” Violet asks, peeking around her husband, presumably to see if any tiny figures are following behind him. She exhales and leans back into the couch when he nods.
“Rory can sleep through anything,” she explains, “but the screaming upsets Wes.”
“He’s getting used to it,” Jamie assures her, to which she replies:
“Hopefully he won’t have to much longer.”
“Here,” Jamie says, taking Avery carefully from Claire. Claire notices how Violet’s eyes tighten for a brief second before the baby is safely — and quietly — in his arms. “You both get some rest and I’ll take over for a bit.”
“Yeah. Okay,” Violet concedes, pushing herself to her feet, “Thanks again Claire. I hope you get some sleep tonight.”
“You too,” Claire says, standing and collecting her bag and the remaining mug with the now luke-warm tea. “Goodnight,” she says, stepping into the hall and closing the door behind her as slowly and silently as possible.
After it closes she realizes that she is still restless, the adrenaline of caring for a screaming child, a child that could easily wake two other sleeping children, still coursing through her veins.
She looks down into her bag at the leftover strawberries and untouched croissants. Would Declan still be awake? Would he appreciate company on a night like tonight? Would he think her strange for knocking at such an inappropriate hour?
Then again, has their relationship ever been anything but strange? She begins walking down the steps to see her upstairs neighbor, inwardly laughing at the contradiction of it, and trying to ignore the hint of excitement she feels at the thought of sharing a quiet moment with him.
She is not prepared for the flash of light through the front windows, or the crash that immediately follows, and she nearly trips off the final step, recovering only just in time. Another flash, but this time it is a darting shadow that startles her rather than the subsequent thunder.
For a moment her breath is trapped in her chest, her lungs clenched in fear and anticipation. Finally she makes out the small shape around the corner from the stairs and the greenish-gold shine of feline eyes.
It does not surprise Claire when Ginger begins to meow, loudly.
“Shhh,” Claire chides, hurrying over to pet the cat before she wakes anyone. Just before Claire’s fingers brush the cat’s fur, Ginger ducks beneath them and dashes a few feet away.
Claire twists her mouth in frustration and tries again. Another last minute dodge and dash. This time Ginger sits in front of the patio door, and Claire is about to turn toward the basement stairs and give up when she notices a silhouette through the glass: someone sitting in one of the chairs and staring out into the backyard.
She approaches slowly, but this time Ginger only rubs against her legs and purrs. When Claire opens the screen door, the cat pushes past her, making directly for the person in the chair and stretching her paws up onto their shins.
“What do you want cat?” A familiar voice asks as the figure reaches down to scratch her chin. The purring grows louder.
Sheet lightning transforms the whole sky from stormy darkness to brightest day for the briefest of moments, but it is still long enough for Claire to see the bruise-like circles and deep creases surrounding Marcus’ eyes. Those eyes flicker up to meet hers just as the light fades to blackness once more.
It takes Claire’s vision time to readjust to the darkness, but she can hear Marcus’ laugh somewhere in front of her.
“Of course you’re here.” He tells it to her like the punchline of a joke he has forgotten to share.
Claire shrugs, “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Have a seat,” he says, indicating the deep wicker chair beside his own.
Claire sets her mug and bag onto the small table between them and Marcus eyes them suspiciously. “Hungry?” She pushes the bag toward him.
“What are they?” He squints into the darkness.
“Strawberries. And chocolate croissants. From Queen Bea’s.”
“Oh, that little place where Lucy works,” he says, surprising Claire. For some reason she had expected his travels to leave him relatively oblivious about the comings and goings of his neighbours. He pulls out a croissant and eats, staring pensively through the patio windows. Ginger jumps into his lap and he pets her with his free hand.
Claire considers a croissant but lifts the tea to her lips instead, leaning back into the chair to watch the storm through the rain-distorted windows. The liquid is still warm enough to be comforting, the chamomile blend sweet on her tongue. The flavour mingles with the scents of drying herbs that hang from the patio ceiling — rosemary, lavender, sage, peppermint — and the raw earthy smell of wet soil. More lightning flashes, but the subsequent thunder has faded from the roar of a tiger to the rumbling purr of a kitten. Claire finds the numbers slipping away from her as she counts, her eyelids suddenly heavy.
“I have something for you,” Marcus says suddenly, pushing Ginger to the floor and digging into the pocket of his jeans. “Here.”
He tosses a round object, its diameter not much greater than a quarter, and Claire barely manages to catch it in one hand.
“What is it?” She holds it up to the window, squinting to make out its shape in the darkness.
“Found it in Barbados.”
“I thought you were in Bermuda,” Claire says, feeling the object’s cold smooth surface in her hands.
“I was. And then I was in Barbados. Egypt and Ecuador too, in case you were wondering.”
There is a resignation in his words, a tiredness that Claire has come to expect in his voice and manner. She doesn’t comment on the strange pattern of his travels, the nonsensical order of his destinations.
“I gave that to the old woman and she said to give it to you when I saw you next.”
“Rose?” Claire asks, and Marcus snaps his fingers and points at her to indicate that she has guessed correctly.
“It mean anything to you?” There is genuine curiosity in his voice. Claire wonders how often he gets to ask the recipients of his hard work such questions. At least Alice sometimes sees their reactions, she thinks, how often does Marcus even know the destination of his finds?
“My mother has family in Barbados,” Claire tells him, and as she says the words she realizes what she holds in her hand. “Is this sea glass?”
“I used to search for it, when we’d visit my cousins.” The memories drift back to her slowly, like the debris of a wrecked ship returning to shore on the waves. “We used to go every winter when I was little. My cousins were all much older than me. We’d play for a little at first, but then they’d get bored of little kid games and wander off.”
“Kids are jerks.”
Claire laughs a little and continues, “My mom would take me to the beach. Just the two of us. And I’d look for crabs and shells and sea glass. I’d bring a little bucket and for every piece of glass I found she’d pay me depending on the size and colour.”
“Kind of like child labour?”
Claire reaches over and punches him lightly on the arm. He objects, but she hardly notes his words; the memory is coming back more swiftly now.
“I’d find a piece and bring it to her and she’d say ‘That’s not glass, that’s hardly a grain of sand.’ I’d throw that one back and find a bigger one. ‘Hmm. That one’s bigger,’ she’d say, ‘but it’s white. Fifty cents.’ ‘Oh look how round and frosty that green one is. Three dollars.'”
“Very, very rarely I’d find something really special. ‘A black one! Wow, I’ll give you six dollars for it.’ And I’d take my money and we’d walk through the street markets and I’d buy us roti or samosas and maybe a pastry or ice cream.”
“What did she do with the sea glass?” Marcus asks, petting Ginger who has somehow managed to sneak back into his lap while he was listening.
“I don’t know. She never told me. She probably just left them with my cousins when we went back.” Claire feels the cold weight of the glass in her hand and wonders what colour it is. There was a colour that had been her mother’s favourite, but she struggles to recall. Lavender? Or was she thinking of Ginny?
“How come you stopped going?”
Claire looks up at him suddenly, “How do you know we stopped?”
“You said when you were little,” he points out with a shrug. “And memories are only important when they hurt,” he adds.
Claire winces at that, unwilling to accept this as true but unable to deny the end of her story. “My sister was born. She came with us for a few years until she started spending more and more time in the hospital. My parents decided she shouldn’t risk the travel anymore and so I decided I wasn’t going either.”
“Do you regret it?”
“No,” Claire answers automatically, so quickly that she doubts herself even before noticing the skeptical arc of Marcus’ brow. For the first time she wonders what things might have been like without Ginny. Just for those two weeks a year. But then, winter was always when Ginny needed her the most.
“No,” she says again, closing her hand tightly over the glass and closing her eyes against the vision of her mother walking the beach alone — no one to bring her shiny stones and take her for lunch with the money she paid for them.
Was it orange? No — blue. Dark or light?
“You care about your sister a lot,” Marcus says, “Where is she these days?”
“Dead,” Claire answers, and is startled by her loose familiarity with that word.
“Figures,” he says.
Emboldened by his brashness, Claire asks, “Do you have any family?”
“Maybe somewhere out there.”
“You don’t know?” She prompts, much gentler than he would have had their roles been reversed.
“Not really. Grew up with my grandpa,” Marcus says, leaning further back into his chair and stretching his arms out. Claire wonders if he gets tired of cramped airline seats; she can’t imagine him riding first class. “I used to find things for him all the time. Things he’d lost. Things that would remind him of stories. He had the best stories, so I was always looking for something that would spark his memory.”
“Is that how it started? The finding?”
“Yeah,” he says, “When he died they put me in foster care. But I kept finding things anyway. Things I knew were important. Things that I knew would spark stories. But I didn’t have anyone to give them to anymore.”
“Didn’t exactly make me a favourite at the homes I stayed in. No one wanted the kid who came home late with his pockets full of garbage and half of it stolen to boot.” He scratches his chin and chuckles, “Mostly found my way around that these days. People tend to have a price for damned near everything.”
Claire thought about that. “How do you make money? For the plane tickets and… you know… the things that belong to other people?”
“I get paid,” he says as if it is the most obvious thing in the world.
“Sometimes. There are others too,” he says, nonchalant as ever.
“How do you find these people? Where do they get the money?” A series of questions chase each other’s tails through Claire’s head, making her realize how slow her thoughts are becoming and how heavy her eyelids.
“People like us tend to find each other. It’s like… we’re made of something different than everyone else, something magnetic that pulls us into the same places.”
Claire realizes he is including her when he says we, and at the same time she understands that she really can’t object to this inclusion after everything that’s happened.
“As for the money…” He shrugs.
Too tired to press him further she forces herself to her feet, collecting her bag and mug. “I’ve got to get back to sleep.”
“Yeah. I think I’ll just watch the storm a little longer. Thanks for the late night snack,” he adds.
Claire smiles, “No problem.”
“I get the feeling it wasn’t intended for me.”
Claire feels a moment’s regret, but it’s pang reminds her of something else. “Mack was asking about you. Asking when you were coming back.”
“He shouldn’t,” Marcus answers, his tone gloomier than the rain still teaming against the pane.
“Your date didn’t go well?”
“Dates. And they were all amazing.”
“Then why…” Claire begins, but Marcus interrupts.
“Because no one wants a kid who comes home late with garbage in his pockets,” he says, “Chasing everyone else’s stories with no time to make his own.”
Distant thunder reverberates in the silence between them.
“If there’s anyone who knows anything about finding stories, it’s Mack,” Claire tells him.
“Goodnight Claire,” he says, reaching down to scratch behind Ginger’s ear.
“Goodnight,” Claire says, hoping his anger means her words have reached him.
She stops for a moment at the head of the basement stairs, but she is too tired now for any more late night visits. Her legs protest with each step she takes up to her apartment, and the bright light of the kitchen when she opens the door makes her head swim. Beans looks up from the bed, his tongue curling in a canine yawn before he lays it back down again.
Claire sets her things on the counter and reaches for the light switch, her eyes longing for dark and sleep. An already half-forgotten curiosity nags at the back of her mind and she pauses, pushing aside the objects on the counter until she finds the small glass stone.
Pale blue. Smooth and frosted — a frozen memory of the ocean on a cool morning, a mother and daughter sifting through the sand as its waters tickle their toes. She understands now why this had been her mother’s favourite colour.
She holds the stone a moment longer and then turns out the light. She deposits it on the shelf with her other stories — her books and her unsolved mysteries — and then lays down next to her dog. Lightning flashes outside, but she is too tired to remember to count, and is asleep long before the thunder follows.
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