Gusts of wind beat at the house like ocean waves, rhythmically crashing against the walls and windows before subsiding into eerie silence. An occasional clattering of hail fills the gap between the violent gusts, rattling against the glass so hard that Claire lies awake, anticipating the shattering of broken glass.
For the first time, Claire is grateful for the single tall window that has replaced the panorama of glass she left behind in the tower; she wonders how well Declan is sleeping.
After another onslaught of wind and ice she groans in frustration and pushes herself up from the bed, ignoring the small whine of protest from Beans. Without turning on the light, she throws aside thick curtains and drops onto the cushioned bench that has been built into a snug little alcove of shelving surrounding the window. Most of the shelves are lined with books, though many are still waiting to be filled. It was not long ago that they were overflowing with Lucy’s photograph’s and treasures.
Claire sighs and leans back into the alcove to watch the storm. It is late — shortly after two in the morning — but there is enough light for Claire to see the faint silhouettes of the nearby trees as they bow under the force of the wind, some so low that their uppermost branches nearly reach the ground. Claire’s heart races every time the gusts return after tapering off, as if this might be the time when the entire house is lifted away from its foundation. She has never liked windstorms, but the impossible dance of the trees and the turbulent rise and fall of the lake are hypnotic.
Involuntarily, she begins to recall the worst storms of her childhood. To her surprise the memories are warm: Snuggling in next to her sister. Flashlights under a thick blanket that muffled the worst of the thunder and wind. Sneaking to the kitchen for a forbidden snack. Making Ginny feel safe had forced her to overcome her fears, if only temporarily. In a way, being needed by Ginny had provided Claire with the same comfort that she had hoped to provide.
She wraps her arms around herself, inwardly blaming the cold emanating from the window.
She doesn’t have Ginny now, but then again, she hadn’t always had her as a child. Her memories of life before Ginny are hazy and scattered — visiting her cousins, her first days of school, her brief stint on a soccer team, days spent with her Granny — but she can vaguely recall nights stealing into her parents’ bedroom, her mother’s warm arms pulling her in close.
She tries to remember the last time she hugged her mother — three years ago, just before Claire moved out and her parents absconded on yet another business trip? Had she even hugged her that day? In nearly three years they hadn’t even made the time to see each other — whenever her mother came home she seemed to fill every moment of free time picking up the pieces of her work life, organizing events and fundraising campaigns for various not-for-profits. She crammed in as many appointments and clients as possible while her father did his best to finagle another business trip. The further away, the better.
Not that Claire had gone so far out of her way to book a day off to visit her either. She misses her mother. Maybe not in the urgent way she sometimes misses Ginny, but the absence still aches like an old injury on a rainy day. On a night like tonight when she can feel the ghost of her mother’s arms around her.
I wonder if protecting me made her feel safe the way protecting Ginny made me feel.
The wind howls and Claire can almost imagine that it is a voice calling out in the night. The sound dies and with it the clatter of hail. With the next gust Claire again hears a voice almost lost within it. She must be dreaming, she thinks, because her ears make a word out of the wail — mom.
And again. A child calling for their mother. Claire shakes her head but then notices Beans sitting at the end of the bed, his ears trained forward, his nose sniffing toward the bedroom door.
Claire stiffens, her ears straining for the impossible sound. This time the call comes as the wind relents, its lament clear.
Claire’s heart races and there is a growing tightness in her stomach as she forces herself up and toward the door. The voice is definitely a child’s, but there are no children at 53 Ganymede anymore.
Claire grips the door handle tightly and throws open the door.
The living area is dark and barren. Claire hesitates in the doorway, half-convinced that her imagination has gotten the better of her. Beans seems to have already dismissed the sound and is curled up once more at the foot of the bed.
Mom, the voice calls again, fainter now and half drowned by the storm. Claire thinks that it comes from the direction of the hallway and not outside in the maelstrom. She bites her lip and glances at Lucy’s bedroom door; it is shut tight. Though she longs for company, Claire decides to let her friend sleep; she crosses the apartment alone.
After peeking her head out into the hall and discerning nothing sinister in the darkness, Claire steps out onto the third floor landing. She closes the door carefully behind her and listens. Aside from the wind and the creaking it elicits from the old bones of the house, Claire can hear nothing out of the ordinary. She walks the perimeter of the hallway, pausing at Declan’s door. There, against the railing that lines one side of the landing: a shadow. It moves, approaching Claire.
Not for the first time since moving in, Claire nearly jumps out of her skin at an unexpected “meow.”
The shadow rubs against her legs and then against Declan’s door. Claire can just make out a hint of orange and the reflective green eyes.
“Ginger!” Claire hisses, chiding the cat as she paws at Declan’s door.
Just as she begins to wonder if she hasn’t somehow mistaken Ginger’s cry for that of a child, another sound reaches her ears. It isn’t a voice, exactly, but something more hushed and rhythmic. Claire ignores Ginger to follow the sound down the wide staircase.
Claire descends each stair with care, hardly able to discern their form in the early morning blackness. Usually she loves 53 Ganymede at night, its old shadowy corners filled with mystery and possibility, but tonight she feels something else: fear. A permeating nervousness that makes those charming nooks and crannies suddenly malignant.
Claire relies on her ears to lead her forward, afraid of what she’ll see if she lets her eyes rest anywhere for too long.
At the foot of the stairs, in the cavernous entryway, the sound is loud enough for Claire to identify it as sobbing. She nearly trips over its source, huddled in a shadowy blob against the banister on the final step.
Claire kneels in front of the child where they sit with their head down, arms wrapped tightly around their knees. She gently reaches out to touch one of those arms. The child raises their head slowly, peeking out at her and trembling.
“Shhh,” Claire soothes, “Are you lost?”
The child nods, wiping their nose on a pajama sleeve.
“How did you get in here?” She asks as gently as possible while still raising her voice above the roaring storm outside.
The child shakes their head. “I — I woke up here.”
It is dark, but Claire does her best not to let her confusion show, just in case.
“What’s your name?”
They stare at Claire, their lip trembling and twisting.
“I’m Claire,” she offers, “I live all the way at the top of those stairs. I heard you crying and I came to help.”
She wishes Beans had accompanied her — kids always love him.
“Do you know where my mom is?”
There is so much hope in that tiny voice, so much quivering desperation in those wide eyes, so much determination in the tilt of the little chin that Claire has to fight to keep her own voice level and reassuring.
“I’m not sure, but I’d like to help you find her, okay?”
The child nods, but then fixes their gaze on the front door behind Claire. Claire also turns, hearing the click of a key in the lock. There is the warmth of a little hand in hers then, and she grips it tightly, letting its presence remind her that she can be brave.
The door opens, letting in the storm; the wind tears through the entryway like a wild animal searching desperately for an escape. A figure enters and swiftly closes the door, cursing as it does so. It then turns, and uses a free hand to brush ice and snow from tousled hair while the other stows away keys in the pocket of a leather jacket.
“Marcus,” Claire calls to him and is inwardly satisfied when he startles and curses once more.
“Jesus Claire! I didn’t see you.”
Claire nods toward the child, now watching Marcus with nervous curiosity. “Language,” she chides.
“Oh. Sorry,” he says, “Whose kid?”
“I don’t know. You said you woke up here, right?”
“Mhm.” The child nods quickly and sniffles.
“Well that’s weird,” Marcus says with his usual nonchalance. Claire almost expects him to shrug and head off to bed, but instead he tilts his head toward the back hall and adds, “Come on.”
Claire looks from Marcus to the child and back again. She is surprised when the little one stands up without further coercion.
Once Marcus sees he’s being followed, he grins and continues toward the back of the house. “What’s your name?” He asks as they walk.
“River,” the child answers, holding Claire’s hand tightly as they pass by the breakfast nook and into the kitchen.
“I’m Marcus. Let’s get some light in here.” Marcus flicks on the kitchen light and begins rifling through cupboards, “You like hot chocolate, River?”
River nods emphatically.
“Have a seat,” Marcus indicates the kitchen island with a wink and Claire carefully lifts the child onto one of the high wooden stools. With the lights on she judges them to be younger than Wesley Gallagher, and maybe a little older than Rory — probably five or six. She considers the messy shoulder-length black hair, the wide chestnut eyes, the too-small, hand-me-down pajamas with shooting stars, but she can find no clues regarding this child’s origin.
While Marcus begins mixing together ingredients in a pot, Claire decides to gently question the child once more.
“River — what do you remember about when you went to sleep?” Perhaps this will illuminate some detail they have missed, she thinks.
River stares at the back of their hands where they rest on the island’s marble top and squints as if the answers are written there but in a print too tiny to make out easily.
“I was at Nana’s. We put everything in boxes and Mom left and said she’d be back,” they squint harder, “Nana let me watch tv at night — just for special — but I think I fell asleep.”
Marcus and Claire exchange a concerned glance.
“Do you know your Nana’s phone number?” Marcus asks, whisking the steaming liquid in the pot, “Or your mom’s?”
River nods. Marcus pours the liquid into three cups and sets one — grey ceramic with tiny paw-shaped indentations across its surface — in front of River. He slides his cell phone beside it. “Go ahead.”
River snatches up the phone and begins pressing the glowing numbers. There is a click and Claire can make out the monotone voice of an automated message.
“What does not in service mean?” River asks. Another meaningful exchange between Claire and Marcus.
“Was that your mom’s number?” Marcus asks and when River says it was he adds, “Try your Nana.”
More dialing and this time the call connects. As it rings footsteps approach from behind and Claire turns to find a very groggy-looking Art dressed in green flannel pajamas. She yawns and, seeing the child, frowns.
“What’s going on?”
“Nana!” River shouts into the phone, and Claire turns to Art with a finger over her lips. Art hobbles over and leans in to listen.
Claire hears a panicked voice, a flurry of words so fast she can only pick out a handful: where did — who — I’ll come find —
“I don’t know. Where’s mommy? A kitchen with people –“
“Can I speak with her?” Art asks, and River nods, handing the phone over with a painful reluctance.
“Hello — Mrs. Miller?”
Claire starts at the name and looks to Marcus who shrugs.
“Yes, he’s just downstairs in the kitchen. I’ll bring him up. One second.” Art ends the call and offers to phone to Claire who redirects it to Marcus. She leans onto the island, supporting herself by her elbows while she meets River’s eyes.
“Your grandmother is waiting for you upstairs. Would you like to bring her some hot chocolate too?”
“Mind if I take one of these?” Art asks, indicating the other two untouched mugs. Marcus and Claire both shake their heads and watch as Art helps the child off of the stool and guides them down the hall, a mug of hot chocolate in each hand.
“Uhh… What just happened?” Marcus asks.
“I… don’t know?”
“Here –” Marcus says, depositing the remaining mug in front of Claire.
“You sure?” Claire asks, but Marcus waves away her protest. Claire takes a sip. “Wow. That’s actually pretty good.”
Marcus raises an eyebrow, “You thought it wouldn’t be?”
She tries to hide her guilty smile. “I just didn’t see you as a hot cocoa kind of guy.”
“I’m full of surprises.”
Claire hears more footsteps and then Art returns to the kitchen. Despite the expectant silence she ignores both Marcus and Claire and begins mixing more liquid in the pot. Once it begins to steam she pours it into two mugs and digs in a cupboard for a bottle of whiskey. She pours a hefty dose into each and hands one of the mugs to Marcus.
“Did I mention Art is the one who taught me to make cocoa?” Marcus says, taking a swig from his mug
Claire laughs and shakes her head.
“So what the hell was that all about?” Marcus asks.
“New tenants,” Art says, leaning against the counter as she drinks.
“The Gallagher’s old place?” Claire asks, “When did they move in?”
“Tonight,” Art says, “or this morning I guess. Apparently the grandson sleep walks sometimes.”
“He mentioned the boxes,” Claire says, piecing the story together, “I guess he slept through the move?”
Art nods, “They didn’t bring much. Sounds like his grandma carried him upstairs and laid him on some blankets. She brought everything up and went to sleep next to him, but he must have wandered off.”
“Must have been a hell of a shock for the poor kid,” Marcus says.
“I think he was looking for his mother,” Claire says.
Art sighs. “Yeah.'”
“Where is she?” Claire asks, “his mom? And why move in so late?”
Another sigh and Art tips the mug back, finishing it off in one drink. “I don’t know. She’s supposed to meet them here eventually. As for the time…”
“Only one reason people do things in the dead of night,” Marcus says, “Well, provided they’re not vampires…”
Art scrunches her face into a disapproving scowl forcing Marcus to retreat behind another swig of hot cocoa.
Art shakes her head and addresses Claire, “People only come to 53 Ganymede because they need help, I think you’ve realized that by now. Sometimes that help is subtle and quiet, but for others it’s more… urgent. Sometimes it’s the kind of help that means loading everything into boxes and leaving under cover of darkness. The kind of help that means leaving people behind and hoping that they find their way back to you.”
“Will she?” Claire asks, wondering suddenly what her mother would have given to save Ginny. What it felt like when she realized nothing she could do would ever protect her. When she realized even Claire no longer needed her protection.
She recalls a dream of a shattered mug and the scream of a kettle, and she half-remembers something else, something that feels more like a memory than a dream.
“I don’t know,” Art answers, making Claire lose the thread of her memories, each detail slipping away back into the formless mass of her subconscious. “I’m not Sara, I can’t — I don’t know.”
“Does Sara know?” Claire presses, still feeling the warmth of that little hand in hers. Somewhere, someone was missing that warmth right now.
Art shrugs. “I’m sure if she did she wouldn’t tell me. And… I’m not sure she even knows what she knows half the time. She just… happens to do or say the right thing sometimes is all.”
The three of them all sit silently, letting the ineffable future press down on them and work its way between them. Claire can feel the cracks within her widening under the pressure; after all, hadn’t she already learned that Ganymede isn’t immune to tragedy?
The sound of an exaggerated breath calls her attention to Marcus — he exhales and shakes, as if ridding himself of a layer of snow or dust. “Well… If there’s anything you think I’d be useful for, give me a call. I’m heading to Shanghai in a few hours but… I dunno. I won’t be gone long… and if it’s about finding someone… well, I’m your man.”
Marcus’ wink is forced this time, and Claire can see that offering help doesn’t come as easily to him as avoiding it. Still, Claire feels all the more endeared to him for it, and Art too given the way her eyes bulge from her skull in surprise.
“What?” Marcus says, rearranging his jacket collar self-consciously.
“You want to help?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, I guess I feel like I owe it to this place. To you guys. Karma and all that,” he leans against the counter and crosses his arms, shrugging, “Besides, last time I helped someone things started going really well for me.”
Art rolls her eyes, “How noble.”
Marcus uncrosses his arms, his mouth falling into a thin, solemn line. “I mean it Art. If you need anything, if they need anything, call. The world could use more people like you. More places like this.” He looks around, extending his arms as if they might envelop the entire kitchen.
“He’s right,” Claire says, and Art nods in reluctant agreement even though, for that one moment, Claire had been speaking to herself.
“Anyway, to bed with you. I think we could all use some sleep.” Art stretches her arms into the air as she walks away, turning out the light behind her so that Marcus and Claire are submerged in darkness.
“Night,” Marcus shouts after her.
Claire and Marcus climb the stairs together, and she bids him goodnight at his door. Before she turns toward her own apartment she catches a flicker of movement near Declan’s door which, she realizes, is ajar. She looks just in time to notice Ginger slipping through the gap before disappearing down the stairs. Claire shakes her head and crosses the hall. She reaches for the doorknob and hesitates for a moment before pulling the door closed with a gentle click.
She locks the her own apartment door behind her, yawning as she returns to her room to find Beans exactly where she left him. She pats his head and, rather than dropping into the bed with him, turns to the shelves by the window, plucking something from one of them. She holds the small piece of sea glass up to the window, looking at the dark world through its transparent blue surface. With a sigh, she sets it down again and retrieves her phone in its place. Its screen glows, stinging her eyes as she types. She hits send and finally sneaks under the covers and drifts off to sleep, letting the storm carry her away into her dreams like a ship over the waves.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about 53 Ganymede! You can let me know what you thought about this episode, or the series in general, in the comments below or over at Web Fiction Guide.
I’ve really been enjoying writing this series, especially because 2019 has been a rough year for me so far and Gany really gives me a space where I feel like I can be at peace. This is the first story I’ve ever written serially and it has been a great learning experience — I’m already toying with the idea of doing another one in the future after this one comes to a close. Thank you so much for reading and I hope I can share with you a little of the comfort that 53 Ganymede has brought me. ❤
Photo by Anandu Vinod on Unsplash