Claire’s head gently bounces against the head rest as the train hurtles over the tracks. She watches trees – naked except for their elegant gloves of snow – disappear outside her window until her eyes grow tired and begin to close of their own volition. There is little noise aside from the clacking and chugging of the train, and the constant rocking lulls her into a half-sleep. Every time her head sinks further down toward her shoulder she jolts awake and begins the process anew. She is tired, having slept hardly three hours before dragging herself to the train station, but it is too late in her journey to trust herself to sleep now – her destination approaches.
The train eventually slows and there is a ringing of a bell which forces Claire into consciousness. She opens her eyes to find freshly ploughed streets and buildings in place of the trees. A row of cars waits behind safety bars and flashing lights as the train makes its sluggish way through the city.
It is a familiar city, full of nostalgia and memories.
“We are now arriving at Benton Station,” a musical voice chimes over the intercom, “Benton Station.”
Claire rolls the stiffness from her shoulders and sits straight. She reaches for the overnight bag on the seat beside her and then carefully lifts a few sprigs of dried lavender tied with a cream-coloured ribbon from her lap. Their scent seems to fill the whole of the car, and Claire inhales deeply, silently thanking Sara for leaving them by her door this morning.
No one is waiting for Claire as she departs the train. The long cement platform is barren and the only sign of life comes from inside the tiny station building; not many trains run through Benton, and few people ride them, especially so early on a Saturday morning. Claire straightens her bag and hurries into the warm safety of the building. There are a couple of people loitering here – buying a coffee from the tiny shop or reading a newspaper on a bench – but it is even quieter here than on the train.
Claire’s voice echoes against the white-brick walls as she asks the ticket vendor for a weekend pass for the Benton bus system, and she drops it to a whisper to thank him.
She catches the bus in front of the station, transfers at a terminal, and departs in an old residential neighbourhood. The roads here are narrow and far from the main streets, forgotten by the ploughs who have better places to be. Much of the snow has fallen in the night, and so Claire is forced to wade through the sidewalks, occasionally detouring onto the road to follow the compacted tracks of cars.
She admires the decorations on many of the houses, wondering what the lights look like when the sun has fallen. She remembers late night walks with her grandmother on those rare occasions when Ginny had stayed home or been in hospital, the air much too cold for her fragile lungs.
Claire clutches tight to the lavender in her right hand and stops in front of a little brick cottage. She opens the screen door, smiling at the wooden snowman hanging on the wooden door behind it, and knocks.
“Just a minute!” a woman shouts.
It takes much more than a minute but eventually the door opens to reveal a plump woman with tight white curls and clear, chestnut eyes.
“Claire! I didn’t think you’d be here this early. I would have met you at the station!” The woman pouts, the frown chiselling deep lines into her already well-creased face. She holds the door open so Claire can enter.
“I didn’t want to make you go the whole way…”
“Nah nah nah, I don’t want to hear any of this old woman stuff,” the woman closes the door and turns to pull Claire into a firm embrace, “I can drag these bones out to the station to see my granddaughter. I missed you, you know.”
“I missed you too, Granny,” Claire answers, sinking her face into her grandmother’s shoulder to breathe in her familiar smell.
Granny pulls away and limps toward the kitchen. She begins pulling down mugs and starts a kettle to boil before dumping a tower of containers onto the kitchen table. Claire leaves her boots at the door and places her coat and bag on one of the spare kitchen chairs.
“There’s blueberry muffins, oatmeal cookies, and a couple of them sticky toffee bars Ginny liked. I packed the rest up to take to her,” Granny says over her shoulder.
Claire smiles, peaking into each container and choosing one of the toffee bars – there were never restrictions on when you could eat treats at Granny Opal’s house.
Eventually Granny places a steaming mug of orange pekoe in front of Claire and squeezes into the space opposite her.
“Figured we’d head down after lunch, but since you’re here so early might as well leave in an hour or so,” she says, reaching for one of the plastic containers.
“Actually I have to stop somewhere first. Flower and Lace over on Huron Street,” Claire inwardly cringes, “Mom asked me to pick up something for her.”
Granny puts her mug down mid sip, tilts her head, and raises an eyebrow. “She call you?”
“Text,” Claire says, reaching for a cookie to seem nonchalant.
“I’m sorry Claire,” Granny says, her lips twisting to the side. Claire glances away out the window, pretending she doesn’t notice the way Granny’s eyes flicker up and down over her face. “You okay, honey?”
Swallowing, Claire meets Granny’s eyes and nods.
“For what?” Claire asks.
“Well, I raised her. Maybe if I hadn’t been so busy…”
Claire shakes her head, “It’s fine, Granny. And it’s not your fault.”
“No, I s’pose not. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder what I did wrong. If I’d just been home more for her, maybe she’d have been home more for you two.” Granny’s eyes are becoming misty, and Claire can’t afford for her to cry. Not yet.
“You were there plenty for us.” It was true. Claire and Ginny had practically lived with Granny when they were young, though as they grew older they had spent more and more time in their parents’ large, empty house.
Granny reaches out and holds Claire’s hand. “I think… now mind this doesn’t make it right… but I think your mom was scared. Is scared. It’s hard to watch someone get sick like that.”
“And your father didn’t help none, dragging her all over the world on his business.”
It’s hard not to smile at Granny’s anger. Certainly it is better than watching her cry. Claire has only seen her grandmother cry once, a year ago today.
“Anyway,” Granny continues, “they could have called their own daughter.”
“At least they bought flowers,” Claire points out, but Granny just grumbles into her mug.
Riding the bus with Granny is a disorienting experience, reminiscent of days gone by but also starkly different. Claire still feels dwarfed by her grandmother, always a tall woman, but it’s impossible to feel like the child she once was. And Granny’s walker, folded up against her legs, is a constant reminder that Granny has changed too.
Claire realizes how much she’s missed Granny’s company in her months since leaving Benton. It seems as though a hole has been filled inside of her, one that she had forgotten, dwarfed as it was by another she knows will never be filled again.
At the flower shop Granny grumbles about the decadence of the arrangements and about the size of the bouquet Claire’s mother has ordered. Claire can’t help but agree – it is cumbersome to maneuver onto the bus and Claire can’t even see over it as she hugs it tight to her chest to avoid blocking the aisle.
By the time they reach their next stop, they’ve both grown quiet. Claire helps her grandmother down onto the cleared pavement, as best she can with her hands full of roses and carnations. They take their time, walking through the well-maintained paths of the cemetery, taking an indirect route to their destination. Claire can’t help but feel that they are both procrastinating, skirting around the spot they know so well.
Finally, they can put it off no longer, and Claire helps her grandmother onto the snowy grass past a row of flat stones. They stop in front of a specific stone, cleared of snow by the diligent caretakers, its lettering deeply cut and fresh.
Ginny Althea Brown
June 15 1996 – December 12 2015
Daughter, Sister, Friend
Neither Claire nor Granny moves for several minutes, both staring down at the stone. Cold, silent tears trickle down Claire’s face, but she is too afraid to see if the same is true of her grandmother.
Eventually Granny digs into the basket of her walker, lifting out a small plastic container. She removes three of the toffee squares and sets them on the snow beside the stone.
“You’d tell me off, probably. Say I was gonna make some poor animal sick. But you loved those things so much, I used to make them whenever you were coming. Even though I was right sick of them,” Granny’s voice shakes, and she drops onto her knees in the snow.
Claire should bend over to help her, she thinks, but she is rooted to the spot.
“Silly, the things we remember most about people. I wonder what you would have remembered about me. That’s how it should of been.”
Claire shakes her head and leans over to place the oversized bouquet on the opposite side of the stone from the squares.
“From mom and dad,” Claire says, “I think mom wanted to come. Maybe dad too. But you were right… they’re like kids. Maybe more than we were. They still don’t know how to stop running from the things that scare them.”
Claire’s voice drops to a whisper, “I don’t think I do either.”
Granny looks up at Claire then, but Claire ignores her gaze, instead reaching for the sprigs of lavender tucked into her pocket. She sprinkles them on the snow beneath the stone, the same way she once sprinkled them into a steaming tub of water.
“It’s not much, but it’s what I remember most.”
Claire helps Granny to her feet and Granny waves her off, but only after she’s already standing. They take a more direct route out of the cemetery, wiping their eyes with the rough sleeves of their coats. They don’t speak again until they are tucked into the safety of Granny’s living room, fresh teas in hand and with the television playing unwatched before them.
“So,” Granny begins, “What’s the big city like?”
For some reason, Claire finds it hard to recall, like a dream slipping from her waking consciousness. “Nice,” she says.
“Why there?” The older woman asks, not quite meeting Claire’s eyes.
Claire looks into the soft brown liquid in her cup, trying to glean her murky intentions from all those months ago. “It has good transportation.”
“Still don’t have your license?”
Claire shakes her head, “Mom and dad never had time to teach me.”
She doesn’t mention that she didn’t want to leave Ginny alone while she took lessons, or that having a car would seem too tempting — the possibility of just leaving everything behind.
“Benton’s got a decent bus system,” Granny says.
“It’s alright. But Newport has lots of work.” And people, Claire thinks, whole crowds to get lost in.
“And it’s far away.”
“Yes,” Claire says.
“You should have left sooner.”
Claire’s head snaps up then, finally meeting her grandmother’s eyes. She’s not sure exactly what Granny is trying to get at, or whether she should take offense.
“Don’t look so surprised. You’ve been an adult for a long time now — longer than you should have been — it’s good that you’re off on your own.”
“It feels… sometimes it feels wrong. Like I don’t deserve it … as if I’m running away from her. Like mom and dad.” The words are heavy, but as she says them they seem to disintegrate, leaving her free to breathe a little easier.
“Ginny’s gone, sweetie.”
“So that’s it? The moment she dies I just get to move on, like… like I’m suddenly…” Claire’s throat constricts, and she chokes with the force of her words.
“Free?” Granny asks, “You’re worried that if you move on it’ll be like admitting she was holding you back. But Ginny wasn’t holding you back, baby. You were. You clung to Ginny like a lifesaver in an ocean of sharks, and she loved you, oh she loved her big sister something fierce… she loved you so much it hurt her to watch you give up everything. She watched you leave school for her. She watched you give up jobs to be close to home. She watched you stay in this little town even while your head was a million miles away.”
Claire is crying too much now to answer. She is torn by the passage of time; a year has passed in a heartbeat, her grief fresh and raw, and yet she feels as though she has lived in Newport for years, not months. Iss it fair that her new life has already so fully consumed her?
“We take things a day at a time, baby. No one expects it to be easy for you. But if you ever need to come back, if you find yourself alone… I’m here still. You always have a place to go.”
Heaving breaths finally slow into manageable sobs. “I know… I know Granny.”
Claire hesitates for a moment, and then adds, “I’m not alone.”
Granny smiles, her artificial teeth – blindingly white against her dark skin – clicking out over her lips. The silliness of it makes Claire want to giggle like a child, like she used to when Ginny was little.
That night Claire lies awake in the spare bedroom, the tiny porcelain lamp beside the bed creating ominous shadows against the wall. This was the bedroom Claire once shared with Ginny on their joint visits and, unlike everything else around her, it has not changed since their childhood. Even the smell here is the same – that familiar floral scent of Granny’s house mixed with lavender and a bitter undertone of medicine and sickness. Ginny’s smell.
Claire rolls away from the shadows and faces the wooden panelling of the wall. She traces the knots and grain of the wood with a finger, remembering the shapes her and Ginny used to imagine there. They would tell stories to each other from those swirls and wiggles, giggling and shushing each other long into the night.
There is a sound of footsteps past her door – probably her grandmother taking another trip to the washroom. She listens, but there is no sound of running water, no flush. The footsteps continue, soft but quick. Claire cannot rectify those pit-pat noises with her grandmother’s limping gait. She slips out of the blankets and tip toes to the door. It opens with a creak and Claire winces, staring with one eye out of the small crack she’s made. There is silence as she waits, staring out at the dark living room.
She opens the door the rest of the way, and it is thankfully quiet this time. The carpet helps to cushion her own footfalls, and when she slips to her grandmother’s room and pushes the door open, she finds her still asleep, snoring softly.
The creak of a stair. Claire whirls around, forgetting her grandmother’s door and heading quickly in the opposite direction, toward the kitchen. The basement stairs are here, beside the back door, which Claire ensures is still locked. She takes each step slowly, listening for more evidence of another person. Halfway down there is a light switch so high on the wall Claire still has to stretch to reach it. She flicks it and the electric bulbs burst to life.
Granny’s basement is much like Claire remembers it – unfinished and crowded with boxes and unused furniture. There is a fridge here too, where Granny keeps her sodas and frozen baked goods. Claire and Ginny used to raid it on nights just like these, slipping quietly through the darkness and sneaking drinks and balls of cookie dough up to their bedroom like bandits.
Claire half-smiles at the memory, but a muted clang from the laundry area snatches her attention. Shaking with something between fear and anticipation, Claire inches forward, her eyes searching for a likely place to hide, but she can find nothing. All she can see is a tilted wooden ladder that has toppled onto a pile of folded clothes. A small can of nails is scattered over the floor, apparently having tipped during the fall. Claire exhales.
Light glints off something in a narrow hole in the wall beside the ladder. The crawlspace, Claire recalls, shivering. It has always given Claire the creeps, filled with centipedes and spiders and who knows what else. Ginny used to tease her about it, crawling inside or hiding Claire’s things in there when she decided to be a brat. Granny always made her fetch the stolen items back anyway; Claire was too scared to go near the grimy opening. But not Ginny, no – Ginny never seemed to be afraid of anything. She’d been the bravest of all of them.
Claire kneels down, and catches a glimpse of something metallic in the darkness of the space. She weighs her curiosity and her disgust and the former wins out. Barely.
She screws up her face and reaches an arm into the darkness. Her fingers brush the concrete, littered with the shells of dead bugs and years’ worth of dust. Something crawls over her hand and she bites back a scream. How did Ginny used to climb all the way in here?
Finally her hand reaches something cold and hard. When it emerges both her hand and the box it holds are covered in thick gobs of cobweb. Grimacing, Claire wipes them on a rag in the laundry sink and finds an old plastic chair to sit in.
The box is tarnished silver with gold trim and is hardly bigger than the palm of Claire’s hand. Claire recognizes it as an old jewellery box of Granny’s, one Ginny had coveted and eventually received as an early Christmas gift. Claire lifts the small clasp at the front and opens it.
Inside, instead of jewellery, there are several squares of folded, lined paper. Claire’s hand shakes as she removes the topmost and unfolds it. The writing is unmistakeably Ginny’s – the letters fat and loopy, a unique mix of cursive and printing. There is a date in the top right corner – Thursday, March 27, 2015. Hardly nine months before Ginny died, waiting for an ambulance that would come minutes too late — years of asthma, lung infections, and pneumonia having taken their toll.
Claire wipes her eyes against her arm, trying to read the words through the blur of her tears:
I miss you. I know it’s selfish but it’s true. Granny’s fun, but she’s … you know… she’s my grandma. I’m jealous of you, Claire. I’m jealous that you get to go to university and work while I’m stuck doing another year of high school because of sick days. It’s not fair. Not to me. And not to you.
I wish you had gone to school far, far away so that you never had to think of me anymore. I wish you’d go off and have adventures and send me postcards so that I could turn them into stories. I wish I wasn’t sick and we could move away and have a little apartment together just the two of us and have Granny over for tea. You could stay out all night without worrying about me and when we spent time together it would be because we actually wanted to. Not because I needed you to help me take my medicine or because you were too scared of what might happen if you weren’t there to watch the rise and fall of my chest at night.
I wish a lot of things. I think I’m going to try to make some of them happen. I’m going to try writing and I’ve started researching some correspondence courses. I don’t want to just be your sick baby sister anymore. I’m more than that. Just like you’re more than my big sister.
Maybe I’ll be brave enough to tell you this in person one day. Love you,
Claire waits out the worst of her tears before flipping through the other notes. Some are similar to the first while others are pictures or letters written to their mother and father and even Granny. All are dated within the last three years of Ginny’s life when Claire had started at university and was often away until the late hours of the evening. Ginny had spent many of those days alone here with Granny when she was too sick to go to school and Claire couldn’t be home to stay with her. Claire wonders if she’d ever intended to give the letters to anyone, or if they were meant as a kind of secret diary only for her own eyes.
Did it matter, now that she was gone?
Claire cradles the box in her arms as she silently steps up the wooden stairs into the kitchen. She sleeps with the box beside her head and hears no more footsteps in the night.
In the morning she shares the box with Granny, whose hands also tremble as she unfolds the letters. She weeps as she reads each word.
“You should keep this,” Granny manages, placing the squares of paper back inside the silver box, “I think she would have trusted it to you.”
Claire thinks of the gentle footsteps past her bedroom door and nods.
Granny insists on escorting Claire to the train station that afternoon, and Claire is secretly glad of the company. Her mind is reeling with questions and thoughts about the night before, and what she is supposed to do next.
“Let me know when you get home,” Granny tells her, and that final word make Claire suddenly certain.
“Granny, come visit me sometime. I think you’ll like it there. I think Ginny would have liked visiting too.”
“I think she always wanted to see the kind of life you would make for yourself,” Granny agrees.
“I wish I would have been better at helping her believe in making her own,” Claire glances down at her bag, where the little box is tucked away.
Granny’s head drops, “I think we all wish that.”
Claire glances behind her to wave one last time as she boards the train, and this time she is aware of the hole her grandmother leaves inside of her. It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling, she realizes, and is laced with the promise of reunion.
It’s only as her knee bounces impatiently, half an hour out from Newport, that Claire realizes there is yet another absence in her heart. Despite the time she has enjoyed with Granny, despite the bittersweet memories she is leaving behind, she aches for home. Her desperate impatience to see the towering Victorian house, to pick up Beans from the Gallaghers, to joke with Art and read a new book to Hyun-Sook, clears away some of the cobwebs of uncertainty that had been building within her.
She is going home. Home to a life that is no one’s but hers. To people who she’s just beginning to know. To a self that she is just beginning to know.
She clutches her bag tight against her lap.
A woman’s voice rings out over the intercom: “We are now arriving at Newport. Newport station.”
Claire inhales, the void within her gradually filling with anticipation. She exhales and stands, stepping forward to the doors which are now opening onto a concrete platform teeming with life and possibility. Claire smiles and steps out into the sunlight.
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash