The apartment still has a scent — not a bad one, just a noticeable one. Claire inhales deeply, trying to pick apart the specific odors before the acrid scent of vinegar burns them all away. There’s something earthy and buttery, like chocolate frosting, but also something savoury and slightly musky, like pepper and paprika with a dash of fancy cologne. Claire glances toward the kitchen and the sparkling glass stovetop she has just cleaned; she imagines it splashed with grease and broth as Frank stands over a sizzling pan, his grey hair combed back and the sleeves of his shirt unbuttoned and carefully rolled up his thick forearms. With a sigh she looks away and sprays the homemade cleaning solution onto the windows of the massive french doors, wiping away memories along with the lingering scents.
Soon the apartment will smell like nothing to Claire. Or it will smell like her, which is practically the same thing. She glances at Lucy taking down framed photos from the wall and she wonders if the apartment smells different to her now that Claire has moved in. She wonders how many of her senses are bombarded with reminders that her entire life is changing. What does Claire smell like to other people anyway?
I’m too weird, she thinks to herself, shaking her head before addressing Lucy: “You don’t have to take them down,” she says.
Lucy smiles, inspecting the photograph in her hand as she carefully sets it onto the wooden coffee table. It’s a picture of Frank when he was much younger, when his hair had only a sprinkling of grey; he stands with a woman Claire can only assume is Lucy’s grandmother. “I’ll put some of them back up,” she says, “Once we’ve reorganized and painted. You can put some up too. It’ll be nice.”
Lucy’s eyes drift from the photograph to the bare walls of the apartment, lingering as though she can see something Claire cannot, but whether she sees into the past or the future Claire can’t tell.
“Are you sure this is okay?” Claire asks, daunted by her own attachments as well as Lucy’s.
Lucy nods, her mouth pinched into a tight smile, “Mhm.”
She swipes her wrist across her eyes before continuing: “Honestly. I really appreciate you moving in; I thought I was going to have to move out of the city. And… I’m not sure I’m ready to live on my own yet. Not so soon after… Thank you, Claire.”
“But we don’t have to change it…”
Lucy sniffs back her tears and glares at Claire with a sternness that belies her age. “Yes we do. It’s not the same now and pretending it is doesn’t help anyone.”
“Okay, okay,” Claire concedes, throwing her hands up in surrender. She glances back to the sterile kitchen, “It’s just… I feel like I’m erasing all of the memories we had here.”
A place evokes memories, but it doesn’t contain them, Claire hears Rose’s voice echo within her.
“We’re not erasing them,” Lucy says, her smile loosening as she looks at the photographs before her, “we’re just… rearranging them… so we can fit in some new ones.”
Claire inhales deeply one last time, turns to the window, sets her jaw, and begins to clean. When she is finished, she steps back to admire her work and the view of the lake whose recently thawed waters are threatening to spill over.
Beans is going to love this window in the spring. She imagines the blur of white fur as he bounds from the kitchen to the open doors, his nails clicking against the wooden railing as he jumps up to bark at the passing seagulls.
Noise from the kitchen interrupts her thoughts — a clanking of bottles being moved in the fridge and a crinkle of packaging followed by the opening and closing of cupboard doors. Claire turns to find Lucy rifling through the pantry, frowning at a box of cereal.
“We need some groceries,” she says, returning the cereal to the cupboard and grabbing a piece of paper from a notepad on the fridge. She begins scribbling frantically, occasionally pausing to check the fridge or a cupboard.
Claire puts away the cleaning supplies and rips her own paper from the pad. She finds coordinating with Lucy — perhaps not easy, but satisfying in its challenges, and they soon have a fair list of items each.
“I can grab some of this from the Farmer’s Market on my way back from the Chateau tomorrow,” Claire says, studying the lists, “Want to take a break and get the rest now?”
“Sure.” Lucy’s answer is distant, distracted, and Claire notices her fiddling with something in her jeans pocket, “Actually, want to make it a field trip? There’s a place I’d like to go but it’s a little far…”
“Fine with me,” Claire agrees, glad for an excuse to get out after spending the past three days moving her belongings, cleaning, and redecorating.
“Should we ask Declan too? He could probably use a few things.” Lucy is very careful to include Declan whenever she can, Claire has noticed, and it seems to have helped; Declan has definitely been less gloomy lately and Lucy hasn’t forgotten who he is in weeks.
“Let’s go ask,” Claire says, shoving her list into her pocket and putting on her boots by the door. She stuffs some cloth bags into a larger messenger bag before leaving Lucy to lock the apartment door while she crosses the hall.
It is disconcerting standing in front of this door, and part of her brain still wants to pull out her keys and walk inside. Instead she knocks and listens as she waits. Footsteps — familiar and yet not quite the same when they aren’t echoing from above. Declan opens the door and, after a moment of surprise, smiles.
He opens the door wider and Claire’s disorientation grows. The apartment is hers, but not; the layout and form have not changed and yet the space is decidedly not her own. An unfamiliar mug — rough pottery, slanted a little — rests on the kitchen counter, men’s boots and shoes are tucked away just beside the door, and the little bit of bedroom Claire can glimpse is littered with sketchbooks and an easel beside a neatly made bed.
“Wanna come on an adventure?” Lucy leans over Claire’s shoulder, appearing suddenly.
Declan invites them in and takes a sip from the charmingly shabby mug. “Adventure?”
The apartment smells like Declan, Claire notices, and that more than anything is what solidifies the reality that this place is no longer hers. Not that it ever really belonged to her, but still, the realization is jarring.
“Well, grocery shopping,” Lucy admits, flipping her keys back and forth in her hand, “But there’s a store I want to go to across town. Unless you’re working?”
Claire can’t quite make out exactly what Declan smells like — there’s definitely a hint of coffee, and something fresh — maybe soap? But there’s something else she can’t quite place.
“No, not today. It’s good timing actually…” Declan looks at Claire knowingly, but she is still distracted by the scent she cannot place and only half aware of the conversation.
“Meet you downstairs?” Lucy asks and Declan agrees.
Just before the women leave Claire notices something orange dart through the doorway into the bedroom.
Declan laughs, glancing at the place where the cat has just vanished, “Probably. She keeps getting in here. I guess she likes me…”
“She never snuck in on me.” She’s locked me out before though, she thinks with a touch of indignation.
“Maybe it was your dog. Where is he anyway?”
“At the Gallagher’s while we clean and paint. Keeps him out from underfoot and the kids love it. I pick him up tomorrow.”
There is a sudden symphony of rustling and miniature crashes from the bedroom and Declan rushes off, shouting, “Ginger get off of there!”
“See you downstairs,” Lucy calls to his back, pulling Claire into the hall and down the stairs. While they wait, Claire notices her fiddling with her pocket once again.
She is just about to inquire about it when Declan arrives, a purring Ginger in his arms. He sets her down at the foot of the staircase where she bounds back up several stairs and then sits, observing them with a flicking tail as they depart.
“To the subway!” Lucy announces, pointing down the street toward the downtown station.
“Aye, Captain,” Claire says with an exaggerated salute before falling in between Lucy and Declan on the damp pavement. Here and there stubborn piles of snow remain, glistening in the unseasonably warm sunlight. Claire sheds her gloves and hat, shoving them into her bag in order to bask in as much of the sunshine as possible before the weather inevitably turns wintery again.
“So how’s the decorating coming?” Declan asks as they walk.
“Pretty good,” Claire says, stretching her arms and rolling her neck, “but we definitely needed a break.”
“What’s it like having a real apartment that actually stays in one place?” Lucy asks and Claire ignores the pang of longing she feels for her old tower room.
“You have no idea how amazing windows are until you live without them for so long,” Declan says, twisting his mouth into an almost-smile, “Especially for painting…”
“Can we see your paintings?” Lucy interjects with an enthusiasm that for a brief moment reminds Claire of Beans. Even Declan laughs.
“If you want to. I mean when they’re finished. It’s just that… well sometimes they’re kinda weird…”
“We’re kinda weird,” Claire points out, “and your art is stunning.”
Declan’s head drops and for a moment Claire worries that he might find her praise stifling, but when he looks up again Claire can see the grin that threatens to split his face in two.
“Who is the woman?” Lucy asks after a few minutes pass in warm silence, “I didn’t mean to peek but I could see a bit of the painting from the kitchen…”
Declan’s mouth falls back into its ambivalent smile. “It’s my mom.”
“Your mom?” The surprise in Lucy’s voice draws Claire’s attention in time to see her thick brow sink in confusion, or perhaps concern — Claire can’t be sure.
They reach the station before she can investigate and are swept into the crashing wave of a noisy late morning crowd. Lucy guides them through a gaggle of university students in between classes, past several cliques of office workers taking an early lunch, and to the appropriate platform. A subway car comes to a screeching halt as soon as they approach and they scurry on, finding a place to stand together, Lucy holding Claire’s bag and Claire grasping Declan’s jacket so that they aren’t separated. Three stops later they arrive at University Station and release a hoard of students onto the platform, leaving the car relatively deserted.
Lucy tugs them along until they find three seats together.
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” she says, more to herself than anyone else, and then proceeds to lose herself in the empty darkness outside the window. Her unusual distraction worries Claire, and she exchanges a concerned look with Declan before Lucy suddenly turns to them with renewed enthusiasm. “So Declan… I have to say we’re having pretty good timing today… what with you being off work and getting here just in time to catch our ride.”
Declan chuckles politely, “Yeah. I think that’s mostly Claire’s doing.”
“What do you mean?” Lucy asks, looking from Claire to Declan and back again.
“I… I’ve been told I have good timing,” Claire tells her with a shrug. She turns to Declan: “But haven’t things been getting better? The apartment, the job with Mack…”
“Yeah, of course. I mean… I don’t want to seem like I’m not grateful… it’s just…” He runs a hand through his silvery hair, ruffling it at the back.
“What’s wrong?” Claire presses.
He groans as if saying it out loud hurts him: “Since I moved into the house — I mean really moved in — it’s like… things have gotten worse.”
“Not everything — I think people can remember me better. Art doesn’t jump every time she sees me anymore, but the timing… the bad luck.”
“What happened?” Lucy asks, leaning in close over Claire’s shoulder to listen.
“My other job, the cafe I was working at, decided to move to another location out of the city. Mack’s going on vacation soon I guess… with Marcus… so the shop’s going to be closed for a while. And other little things here and there… thunderstorms when I’ve planned to go outside to paint, finding a hole in my best shirt right before an interview… little things that no one would really notice on their own.”
Claire can feel the weight of his unspoken words. “You haven’t been able to get back to the Grey Market, have you?”
Declan shakes his head, his jaw tightening. “Something always gets in the way.”
“Would it help if I planned to come too?” Claire asks, and after a dramatically pathetic look from Lucy adds, “And Lucy too, of course.”
“I would really appreciate it,” Declan sighs, “I’m sorry for constantly having to rely on you…”
“I find thank you usually works better than sorry,” Lucy interrupts, casually leaning back in her seat as if it were none of her business anyway.
The quiet rumble of Declan’s laughter makes Claire grateful that they could all come together; Lucy seems to have a gift for making Declan laugh.
“You’re right. Thank you, Claire,” he says, “again.”
“I didn’t really do anything.”
“That means ‘you’re welcome,'” Lucy says without looking at them. Claire rolls her eyes but can’t help the spread of a warm smile when her gaze meets Declan’s.
“Oh!” Lucy sits up suddenly, startling them both, “Declan — your mom!”
“What about her?”
“The painting — it’s familiar. I thought maybe the model was someone I’d seen around somewhere before but when you said your mom…”
“You’ve seen my mom before?” Declan asks, leaning in close over Claire’s shoulder. She notices that smell she can’t quite place again.
“I swear I have, I just don’t know where.”
“Where could Lucy have met your mom?” Claire asks. I like the way he smells, she thinks as he leans closer.
“I don’t know,” he says, his voice lowering and his face settling into its usual wistful sadness. “You would have to have been pretty young when you saw her… she’s been gone for almost seven years. And she didn’t get out much once she got sick…”
“Yeah…”Lucy answers quietly, “I remember what it was like with my mom…”
Declan nods, and Claire reaches over to hold Lucy’s hand.
“This is our stop,” she announces with forced enthusiasm, “We’re almost there.”
Claire wonders where there is, but she follows patiently, still grasping Lucy’s hand. She can feel Declan standing close behind her as they depart and make their way through the station — this one less busy than the first. There is a comfort here between her closest friends, and she ponders their strange connection; death isn’t the common thread she might have chosen for them, but she is oddly grateful for the quiet understanding that they share.
They travel the few remaining blocks in silence until they arrive at a small strip plaza in a generally unremarkable neighborhood. The houses and stores all look comfortably disheveled, as if they’ve grown old and tired of the big city bustle and are content to sit back and let the world leave them behind. The plaza is home to a laundromat, a pharmacy, a quick loan company, and an independent grocery store. It’s to this last that Lucy leads the others, though she spares a glance for the rest of the plaza and sighs.
“There used to be a video rental place my mom and I went to all the time,” she tells them, “I guess people don’t use those anymore.”
They pass under the awning that supports the large blue letters of a sign — “Gladstone’s” it reads — and stop in front of the doors which slide apart, welcoming them in. Lucy hesitates, her hand fiddling with the item in her pocket and eventually withdrawing a shiny quarter.
“Is that–?” Claire asks and Lucy nods.
“Yeah, it was in the box you gave me. I think…” There is a sharp inhale before she continues, “I think it’s from my mom. She used to work here.”
She clenches the quarter tight in her fist and strides forward, Claire and Declan following behind her.
Inside Claire is overwhelmed by the scent of fresh baked goods — yeast, vanilla, chocolate, and cream. A stomach growls and, for a moment, Claire thinks it is hers until she notices Declan’s sheepish expression. She longs to find the bakery, to explore the neatly lined shelves ahead of her, but Lucy has stopped just inside the entry and so she is forced to wait.
“She used to give me a quarter,” Lucy explains, crouching down to examine the toy and candy vending machines against the wall, “when I’d meet her here after school.”
To Claire’s surprise many of the machines are still labelled 25 cents, and Lucy carefully considers each one. She rolls the coin between her fingers and frowns, but doesn’t seem convinced by any of the offerings.
“What do you think?” Claire prompts, and Lucy shrugs.
“I don’t know,” she says, her voice heavy with defeat, “Maybe I’ll think about it while we shop.”
“There’s no rush,” Declan says, and Claire wonders if he’s thinking of his own strange gift and the wish he made in the Chateau’s fountain. He still hasn’t told her what it was he wished for, she realizes.
The three of them enter the store and Claire is immediately charmed by the offerings. Aside from the usual produce and other various food items, the store also has a small florist section, a deli, bakery, and an aisle dedicated specifically to British imports. Lucy and Claire carefully select some candies and a package of chocolate Hobnobs — “We can totally make s’mores with these,” Lucy says, adding them to their basket.
They save the bakery for last, and when they arrive Claire’s stomach is definitely the one rumbling. While they peruse the offerings, trying to decide what to get for the ride home, an older woman appears from around the counter and approaches them:
“I’m sorry — this might be awkward but… is your name Lucy?”
Lucy looks up from the brownies she had been eyeing. “Meesha?”
“You remember me!” The woman exclaims, “It’s been a few years now, I almost didn’t recognize you. How is your grandfather?”
“He… he passed. Last month.” The pain is too fresh to hide, even with Lucy’s contagious smile, and Claire can tell that Meesha notices it too.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” Meesha pulls Lucy into a tight hug, her painted mouth twisting with concern, “Do you have a minute? You can come back in the bakery while we talk.”
Lucy looks to Claire and Declan.
“You go on,” Claire tells her, “We’ll pay and meet you up at the front.”
“You sure?” Lucy says, glancing eagerly behind the counter like a child searching for a parent.
After paying, Claire and Declan wait by the front door, leaning against the vending machines.
“Do you really think the quarter is from her mom?” Declan asks.
“Do you think your gifts were from your mom?” Claire counters, unsure of his response — for a man with a curse, his stubborn skepticism never ceases to amaze her.
“I think so. Yeah.”
Claire hesitates before asking her next question: “Declan… do you think… I mean, your mom’s curse… did it have anything to do with her death?”
Her heart races; she is nervous about asking the question but even more so about the answer.
“I don’t know,” he says, watching the checkout where a man crouches down so that his young daughter can help bag their groceries, “I don’t think it caused the cancer. She said it ran in her family and I’m not sure the curse works like that. It’s in the little things, in choices and coincidences. Like it just nudges fate here and there. That said, it sure as hell didn’t help: cancelled appointments, missed treatments.”
Claire expects there to be more anger in his voice, but mostly she only notices his resignation.
The little girl from the checkout dashes over to where they stand, her mouth a toothy grin as she selects a vending machine and shoves a shiny quarter into the slot. Her father rushes over, balancing his paper grocery bags in one arm so that he can turn the handle while the little girl puts her hands out to catch the deluge of candy-covered chocolates that pour out. She pops a couple into her father’s mouth with a giggle before taking his hand and walking out through the door. Claire watches them run through the parking lot to an old blue Hyundai, and she realizes that the sky has darkened. A fine rain falls, only visible as it splashes off of the melted puddles of melted snow and ice.
“Rain,” Claire says, realizing the scent she couldn’t identify before — the earthy sweetness of a fresh rainfall. The smell of the Grey Market.
“Yeah, pretty weird for early February,” Declan answers, and Claire is grateful for his misunderstanding.
“Alright, let’s go!” Lucy calls to them, approaching from the tills with a large white box in her hands, her stride much more buoyant than before. “Oh, it’s raining.”
“What about your quarter?” Declan points out, and Claire feels a little guilty that her mind had been preoccupied with the delicious smell coming from the mystery box.
“I gave it to Meesha’s daughter,” Lucy says, “She dropped by with her dad when we were chatting and I just felt like she could use it more than me. I think it served its purpose already.”
“Oh?” Claire asks.
“Meesha’s the bakery manager now. She offered me a part time job and I said yes. I could use the experience, and just being back here…” Lucy’s smile is the most genuine Claire has seen since Frank passed away, “Plus it was fun. Bringing you guys here. Plus I got Hobnobs! Oh and these!
She opens the box a little, revealing an assortment of small sandwiches and cookies.
“Meesha asked if we’d had lunch yet and when I said no she gave them to me. They’re from an order that didn’t get picked up or something.” Lucy closes the box, staring at its closed lid as she continues, “She was really close with my mom and Opa. She felt bad she didn’t know about Opa’s funeral…”
Tears fall from Lucy’s eyes onto the white cardboard, though her smile never falters. “It was really nice coming back here. Sorry for dragging you all this way.”
“I think you mean thank you,” Declan says and Lucy gives him a gentle punch to the arm.
“I’m going to try to remember about your mom,” she promises, “It feels like I saw her from a distance before, but I really don’t know when.”
Declan nods and pulls up the hood of his jacket as the sliding doors open. The rain isn’t heavy, but Claire can feel the icy mist seeping toward her.
“Ready?” Lucy asks, looking to Claire and then Declan.
“Let’s do this,” Claire says before they all sprint through the freezing winter rain.