Three of them sit around the coffee table — Claire and Lucy lounging comfortably on the couch, Declan cross-legged on the hardwood floor with Beans’ head on his leg. He strokes the dog’s wispy white fur absently while sipping black coffee, his eyes tumbling over the papers foisted in front of him.
Claire, still in pajamas, takes a bite of Froot Loops and leans back into the couch, surveying the familiar scene; it has become an unspoken tradition for Declan to join them on Sunday mornings, the three of them idling around and chatting until noon. Whatever polite formalities had once accompanied these visits have been eroded by time and repetition, so gradually that Claire can’t pinpoint any particular moment when her self-consciousness softened into comfort. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot locate the shift from friends to family, only the warm fullness within her that assures her that this change has indeed occurred.
“You guys have a lot of ideas here.” Declan flips one of the papers, revealing more lines packed with scribbled writing.
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” Lucy says.
“No,” he counters, “I say it like it’s not even nine in the morning.”
“He’s right though,” Claire says, “We need to focus it down into something concrete. Right now it’s just a bunch of lists.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Lucy talks through a mouthful of multi-coloured cereal, “We’ve got time while we finish our courses.”
“So, that’s still the plan?”
If Lucy notices Declan’s cheek twitch, the way his gaze drifts slowly downwards, she doesn’t mention it. But Claire does notice, and for a moment she feels a desperate urge to hold onto this morning forever.
“It’s only for a couple of years — ” she begins, but is interrupted by a rhythmic knock at the door. They glance at one another, exchanging a silent question which Claire rises to answer.
“Hey, happen to have any ice?” Marcus asks as she opens the door, Mack shifting from foot to foot behind him.
“Oh my god, Marcus, what happened?”
Claire has always noticed the dark circles around Marcus’ eyes, the evidence of never-ending jet lag, but the purple and blue ring around his left eye this morning is something different entirely. Swelling forces the eye shut, or very nearly, and the storm-cloud of bruising leaks down over his cheekbone. A dark-crusted gash mars his lower lip, a thin line of fresh blood still oozing out from beneath the scab. He steps through the door as Claire rushes to the freezer, rummaging until she finds a half-empty bag of peas which she wraps in a tea towel hanging from the oven door.
“Here. Sit down.”
“I’m alright,” he begins to protest, but Mack interrupts.
“Marcus. Sit down.”
Their eyes meet for a heartbeat, but Marcus’ eyes — or at least one of them — falls as he shrugs and drops beside Lucy on the couch.
“What the hell happened?” Lucy demands.
“We went looking for Lana — River’s mom,” Mack says, leaning down to hold the peas against his boyfriend’s head.
“Did you find her?” Declan asks.
With a laugh as cold as the ice at his temple, Marcus answers: “No. But we found her husband.”
“He did that?” Declan lifts Beans into his arms and moves to stand beside Claire.
“Guess he didn’t like me asking after her,” Marcus says, cringing as Mack gently inspects his eye.
“Is she… Oh my God, is she still there? With him?” Lucy asks, and Claire is grateful, her lips trembling too much to mouth the question herself.
When Marcus shakes his head there is a moment of shared exhalation and silence. Mack breaks it, but with reverence, his voice gently calling their attention as he explains: “I think he thought we knew where she was. The apartment looked a mess — he looked a mess — and he said something about ‘When she comes back.'”
“Then where is she?” Declan asks. “If she’s not there anymore, why hasn’t she come here?”
“I tried,” Marcus’ voice is dry and coarse like gravel, “I’ve been trying to find her since I met the kid. And I can feel her, a tickle on the edge of my perception, like if I turn around she might be right behind me. But she’s not. She’s not there.”
“We don’t think she wants to be found,” Mack says, chewing his lip and frowning at Marcus. “We think maybe, she’s not ready.”
“River needs her,” Declan says, and Claire feels a familiar desperation, one she has recognized in most people in this room at one time or another. Herself included.
“Maybe she’s not ready to be needed.” Marcus doesn’t say this to anyone in particular, his unfocused eyes trained on the floor. “Maybe she’s not ready to be the person she thinks he deserves.”
“He deserves his mom.”
“And she deserves to decide when she’s capable of being that,” Marcus snaps, his gaze focusing on Declan. “What the hell do you think we’re all doing here anyway? We’re hiding, just like her. From ourselves, from our family, from our past, from grief.”
He rests his attention on each of them in turn; Claire feels its uncomfortable weight when it lands on her and is overcome with the urge to defend herself.
“But we… we’re trying to get stronger. Trying to be better.” For a moment, Claire is overcome with the impression that she is talking to Rose and not Marcus. She wonders how much time he’s spent in the old woman’s company, how many similar conversations they’ve had over the years.
“And maybe that’s what she’s doing too.” Marcus’ gaze drifts back downwards again, his mouth a tight line. He snatches the bag of peas from Mack and puts it against his lip, the towel staining red where the gash has torn open from the effort of talking.
“You’re right,” Declan says, “I’m sorry.”
Marcus waves him off, the same way Claire has seen him do to her on many occasions.
“So what do we do now?” she asks.
“I guess we wait,” Mack answers, resting his hand on Marcus’ back, “until she’s ready.”
Everyone seems to deflate — Lucy leaning back into the couch, Declan dropping back down to his place beside Beans, Marcus hunching forward while Mack leans hard into his shoulder — but not Claire. She inhales, filling the empty space within her so that she seems to grow, towering over the room despite her short stature.
“I’m going for a walk,” she announces, turning toward her bedroom before anyone can protest or offer to join her. She needs to think.
After hurriedly dressing, she re-emerges to find the room mostly unchanged except for an added murmur of quiet conversation. “I’ll be back soon,” she tells them.
The morning sun falls heavily across her bare shoulders as she walks down Ganymede Avenue, weighing her down and tempting her with its sluggish heat. Slow down, it seems to say, there’s no rush today. But Claire shakes her head and redoubles her effort, taking pleasure in the sweat collecting at the nape of her neck, and in the struggle of each footstep. She’d forgotten how satisfying it feels to do something difficult, what a relief it could be to act even when the odds are against you.
Maybe she doesn’t want to be found, Claire thinks as she walks, maybe she’s not ready. Maybe she isn’t so different from us, but at least we have the benefit of each other’s support. I can’t stop until I know she’s not alone. Until I’m sure she knows she even has a choice.
The details of her plan are sun-bleached and vague, but she decides she can sort that out when the time comes.
The chimes ring even though the leaves of the trees surrounding the old house hang still, shimmering in the humid air. It hardly surprises Claire, and she climbs the old wooden steps to Rose’s front door without hesitation. It does surprise her when she hears her name ring out from somewhere far behind her. She turns to find Alice watching her from across the street.
“She’s not feeling well today,” she calls. “She’s in bed.”
Claire looks longingly at the door, and for a moment begins to feel her intentions leak away. With another deep breath she steadies herself before sprinting over to Alice.
“Is she okay?” She falls in step with the young girl, glancing back to see the shabby cottage shrinking away behind them.
Alice nods, “It’s just a summer cold, but the coughing really wears her out. Still… it took me an hour to convince her to lay down.”
Claire chuckles to herself, then looks at Alice, noticing the heavy strap of a messenger bag cutting into her right shoulder, wrinkling the neat blue cotton of her dress.
“I’m impressed you managed to convince her at all. You’re a lot tougher than I was at your age.” Claire eyes the strap once more, “Need help?”
Alice looks from the bag to Claire, and for a second Claire has the impression that she’s sizing her up, questioning whether her frame — almost twice that of the young girl’s — will support the weight. In the end she slips it off of her shoulder and says, “Sure. Thanks.”
Claire hefts the bag up onto her own shoulder, the rough strap digging into her bare skin. “What’s in here?”
Alice pats at the wrinkles in her dress. “Deliveries, mostly.”
“How do you know where to take them all? You just wander around until you find the right place?”
“Sometimes,” she answers with a shrug, “but most of them have addresses. It isn’t all intuition and mystery — people pay us to find and deliver specific things too.”
“Really?” Claire’s surprise escapes before she realizes the practicality of what Alice is describing. After all, how else did she think Alice and Marcus got paid for their work? When did the impossible start becoming more logical than the mundane?
“Yep,” Alice smiles, and Claire’s self-consciousness is assuaged by the sense that the girl appreciates her sense of awe. “It’s mostly weird still. And fun.”
“Can I ask you something?” The question struggles free, the familiar clench of Claire’s throat reminding her that she is about to voice a fear for the first time. About to give it form and make it impossible to deny from now on.
Alice nods. Claire inhales.
“Do you ever worry it’ll all disappear? Like one day you’ll wake up and everything will be exactly as it seems? I mean just like it was before…”
“Yes.” Alice answers immediately. “I used to worry about it a lot. I still have nightmares about not being able to find Rose’s house, but not as often.”
Instead of answering, Alice signals for Claire to stop walking and begins rooting around in the bag hanging off of her shoulder. She retrieves a small package wrapped in brown paper, an address scribbled on one corner in black ink.
“I’ll be right back,” she says, hurrying up the closest laneway and knocking on the door of the second of three townhouses. A woman with close-cropped hair, around Claire’s age, opens the door and accepts the package. It’s difficult to tell from so far away, but Claire thinks her hands shake as she receives it. Before closing the door, the woman embraces Alice.
“Who was that?” Claire asks when she returns.
“Anya Stoljek,” Alice says, continuing down the street, “That’s what the package said. It seemed important.”
“She seemed very grateful,” Claire agrees, adjusting the bag on her shoulder; the loss of the small package has done little to reduce its weight.
“That’s part of it.”
“Part of what?”
“The answer to your question,” Alice explains. “Sometimes I do extraordinary things, but most of the time it’s just ordinary. It’s just regular people and regular places, and maybe the circumstances are a little strange but they still aren’t magical.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Here.” Alice reaches out her arms, indicating the bag. Claire passes it over, somewhat grateful to be free of its weight in the heat of the late morning. After glancing at several packages, Alice selects one: brown paper and twine with a bright blue feather tucked into the knot. She hefts the bag back over her shoulder. “Follow me.”
Claire obeys, walking beside Alice. They walk for fifteen minutes or more, finally stopping at a children’s park. Aside from a man pushing a giggling infant on a swing, it is empty. Alice approaches a towering play structure, bends down and places the package into a tube slide.
“There,” she says, wiping away some sand that has clung to the hem of her dress before shuffling through the bag once more. The next package is large and clearly labelled.
Without a word she continues on, Claire following close beside her.
“I’ve never been to this neighborhood.” Claire’s attention flickers from narrow houses to adjacent apartment buildings, towering like trees over shrubs: a strange forest of homes, the gaps between buildings lost in the shadows of the tallest among them. Real foliage — gardens and trees — line the sidewalk and prevent the street from feeling too harshly urban.
“I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about this city until I started working for Rose,” Alice says as she leads them up a pathway to one of the tallest buildings in sight, an impressive slab of concrete and iron. She presses a combination of numbers on a metal panel and is buzzed inside.
Through the sliding glass doors is a cavernous atrium; it isn’t exactly grand — there are no marble floors or chandeliers — but Claire finds herself enamoured by its bright vastness nonetheless.
Alice leads them to one of a pair of elevators and, as they ascend, Claire wonders how many floors there are, how many apartments, how many lives being lead completely oblivious to all of the other lives only inches above, below, and beside. This place fascinates her, maybe not in its beauty, but in its novelty and humanity.
When the doors part at the tenth floor, they reveal a mirror on the opposite wall and the sudden sight of their reflection startles Claire. She sees herself, her long jean shorts and sweat-stained yellow tank top, her afro — drooping a little from the humidity, and beside her a young teenager in an old fashioned blue cotton dress, her blonde hair carefully french-braided over one shoulder. In Alice’s hands rests the package, similarly old-fashioned.
Claire almost giggles at the unlikeliness of their being here together, of their friendship, of her odd habit of receiving sage advice from teenagers.
They knock at a door labelled 1012 and an elderly man answers. He greets them along with the scent of maple syrup and bacon. They carry the package into his apartment and leave it on a table set for two, both plates now empty save for crumbs and sticky puddles of syrup.
As they leave Claire notes only one pair of shoes by the door and she wonders, although she knows she will never learn the answer, where his companion has gone.
When they step back into the thick summer air and begin walking back the way they came, Alice says, “When I remember deliveries, it isn’t the compulsion I remember. It’s not even the weird hiding places. It’s the feeling of being somewhere I’ve never been before. It’s stealing glimpses of other people’s lives. It’s talking with you and Rose or that old man.”
Claire nods, sifting through her memories of 53 Ganymede.
“I’m leaving soon,” she tells Alice, “My friend Lucy and I.”
Claire presses on the tender parts inside of her, testing to see which absence will hurt the most.
“We want to start something together, a place where people can go. A place to eat and read and talk. Somewhere people can rest and feel safe and…. I don’t know. Find direction I guess.” She searches for the words. ” A place like 53 Ganymede, but not. Something different.”
Alice waits, listening.
“But we have so much to learn first, so we have to leave for a while and… I’ve been so scared of leaving everything behind. Of our new home just not being the same. Of this place we’re building together not… well, not being magical.”
“Does it need to be?”
“I thought it did. I mean, I want it to be — of course I do. Who wouldn’t? But when I think about these past three years, that’s not what changed me. When I think about what I’ll miss, it’s the people. It’s those silly, mundane little moments. And when I realize that, I get excited because… well, Lucy will still be there and there’s so many more moments like that waiting for me.”
Alice tilts her head, considering Claire before asking, “Do you think you could carry this for a bit?”
Claire takes the bag, slipping it over her shoulder, surprised to find the strap sitting comfortably over her skin, its weight diminished.
Alice leads them back to Rose’s, only stopping once to deposit a tiny package in a mailbox beside the door of a squat little bungalow along the way.
“Do you want to come in? She might be up by now…”
Claire hesitates but shakes her head. She had said she was going for a short walk, and her friends might be worrying. “No, I think I should head home. Besides, she should get her rest.”
“Was there something you wanted me to ask her for you?”
“Actually,” Claire says, the urgency of this morning’s events waking from its temporary slumber, “I wanted to send a message to someone, but I don’t know where they are.”
“Hmm.” Alice retrieves her bag from Claire, resting her hand against the bulk of whatever still rests inside. “I think it’s more about intention than anything else. As long as you have a clear idea of what you’re sending and who it’s for, I might be able to manage the rest.”
Intention? Claire quietly wonders, I guess I want to help her find a direction. A way home, if she wants it. Wait!
Claire reaches up to her neck, fiddling with a clasp there, and removes her necklace, its blue crystal compass sparkling in the light. She hopes its message will be clear enough.
“Can you get this to a woman named Lana?” Claire asks, wishing she knew the last name at least.
“I’ll do my best,” Alice agrees, taking the compass and closing it in her slender hand.
Hey everyone! You’ll notice at the top I’ve included an audio reading… check it out! Feel free to leave me some feedback in the comments. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to leave me a review over at Web Fiction Guide.