Episode 6 – Picnic by the Lake

There was little doubt that this would be one of the last warm days of the season. The ever-present clouds from the past week had finally dissipated, permitting the dwindling warmth of the autumn sun to finally reach the people of Newport. Claire watches its glowing rays reflect off of the constantly dancing ripples on the lake’s surface. The air blowing across the water makes her shiver, but it is made bearable by the sunlight and the four layers of cotton and wool she wears. Claire pulls her hands up into her oversized sweater and smiles.

She is distracted by a shrill scream followed by raucous laughter. From where Claire sits on her flannel blanket she can see the Gallagher children playing with a small white dog, just across the grassy park. Rory’s tiny legs pump furiously, her arms clutching a flat purple disk. She peers behind her to see the dog in pursuit, gaining on her with every second. Her older brother, Wesley, stops to catch his breath before sprinting after them. When the little dog catches Rory, jumping up to steal the frisbee, there is another scream followed by a bout of giggles.

The dog, who Claire has named Beans, has been very popular since his debut at 53 Ganymede. Even Art has forgiven him his late-night garden transgressions, which is a relief to Claire. With Sara’s blessing, he has remained in her apartment, though he seems to be as much a companion to the entire building rather than Claire’s personal pet.

“I didn’t even know Rory could run that fast,” says a woman, seating herself beside Claire. She adds a stack of Tupperware containers to a growing pile on the blanket. Jamie Gallagher sits beside her, and she casually loops her arm around his waist. Violet Gallagher. Claire has been introduced once or twice since moving in, though they haven’t had much opportunity for actual conversation.

“Or scream so loud,” Jamie adds, waving towards Wesley to let him know that they have arrived. The kids had come down early with Claire so they could tire out Beans before the picnic. Claire wonders who will actually wear down first.

“They’ve been having a blast.” Claire laughs as Beans begins to lick Rory’s round little face.

“It’s been great for them, having a pet around. Thank you for letting them play so often. They’ve been begging me for a dog for ages but we just don’t have the room. And with Ginger around…” Violet makes an exaggerated wince, “It’s kind of nice to see her have to compete with another critter.”

Claire grins; she’s also noticed Ginger’s dislike of their newest housemate. Serves her right, Claire thinks, for locking me out in a storm. She says to Violet, “The kids have been a great help. He’s not very big but he’s got a lot of energy.”

“Funny how that works,” Jamie says, “The smaller they are the more trouble they seem to get into.”

He glances at Rory who simultaneously trips and falls into a puddle beside one of the park’s paved pathways. Though just a little tumble her bright blue pants are smeared with a greyish stain. Jamie is on his feet even before the first screams ring out.

Claire hears approaching footsteps and turns to see Frank and Lucy approaching. Lucy is carrying a large flat box across her arms, candy pink, and Claire stands to help her lower it to the ground. It covers most of their picnic blanket.

“Aha!” Frank exclaims, “I thought that we might need this!”

From under his arm he produces a rolled blanket. It may have once been forest green, but it has been faded by years of use and is now an unattractive chartreuse. Violet moves out of the way as Lucy and Claire lay it out beside the first.

“Is that a cake?” Violet asks, marvelling at the size of the box.

“Yep. Courtesy of Queen Bea’s Family Bakery. Decorated half of it myself.”

“Just half?” Violet teases.

“It’s a big cake,” Lucy shrugs then bends over to pet Beans, now panting by her feet. “You look tired out little guy. You stay away from my cake or I’ll have to feed you to Ginger.”

“Wesley,” Jamie says, carrying a solemn Rory in his arms as Wesley trots along beside him, “Can you keep Beans away from the food?”

Wesley smiles, grateful for being assigned such an entertaining duty.

“Oh I almost forgot,” Lucy says, standing suddenly, “I have to go get Mrs. Park. I’ll be back in a bit.”

She runs off back down the black concrete path and up the sloping side street toward Ganymede.

“Have you met Hyun-Sook yet, Claire?” Frank asks, easing his stiff body down onto the blanket. His knee pops audibly and Claire reaches out an arm to help him down. He waves it off.

“Hyun-Sook?”

“Mrs. Park,” Frank clarifies.

“Oh, no — I haven’t seen her around the house yet.” Claire makes a mental checklist; as far as she knows she has met everyone except Mr. Alvez on the third floor and Mrs. Park on the second. Well, at least she hasn’t met Mr. Alvez formally. She recalls a slender figure, drenched in the midnight rain. “Is Mr. Alvez coming too?”

“Marcus? Doubt it,” Violet interjects, trying to hold back Rory’s hands from the large pink box on the blanket, “He’s almost never home. I’d be surprised if anyone even saw him long enough to invite him.”

“Oh.” Claire says, debating whether she should mention her chance meeting. It feels somehow taboo and so she decides against it. Instead she lifts the corner of the cake box, just enough to peek inside. She deciphers the message scrawled across the top of the cake in almost-neat purple icing.

“Oh,” she says again. She turns to Frank, her brow furrowed as she puts the pieces together. “You didn’t tell me what the picnic was for.”

His generous stomach shakes as he laughs, and he pokes at her with the wooden cane resting beside him. “I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

Claire smiles, shaking her head. “I should have brought a gift or a card or something.”

“No, no. Best present is you being here,” he says, then surveying the pile of containers before him, “And food. What did you bring?”

Claire shows him her large container full of fruits as well as the little wraps she’d spent all morning preparing, carefully including a variety for every possible taste. Jamie and Violet show off their assorted salads and tiny mini muffins that Rory and Wesley have helped bake. Thankfully they have also remembered to bring plates and cutlery which everyone else has managed to forget.

“Ah, here comes our lovely lady now,” Frank announces.

Claire turns to see Lucy almost spill a pitcher of amber liquid while crossing the uneven lawn alongside an unfamiliar woman. The woman’s hair is jet black with only a peppering of grey here and there. She holds herself perfectly straight and is perhaps an inch taller than Lucy, though it’s hard to tell by the way Lucy keeps adjusting for the pitcher. In one hand she holds the strap to an orange canvas bag, and in the other a long white cane that she glides over the ground in long strokes.

“Hyun-Sook, what do you bring me to eat today?” Frank shouts as they approach.

“Sometimes I think you like my food better than you like me, Frank Gartner,” the woman, presumably Mrs. Park, answers back. She doesn’t shout like Frank, but her husky voice carries far nonetheless.

“Don’t worry, sometimes I feel that way too,” Lucy jokes, poking her grandfather with the toe of her black suede boot. He shuffles over so that there is enough room between him and Claire for Mrs. Park and Lucy to sit. Mrs. Park sits directly beside Claire while Lucy makes introductions, “Hyun-Sook this is Claire Brown. Claire, this is Park Hyun-Sook.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Claire says.

“You as well,” Hyun-Sook answers, reaching out a slender hand. Her grip is firm when Claire reaches out her own. She turns back towards Lucy, indicating her bag “Can you help me unpack these?”

Lucy is still finding a safe place to set the pitcher and so Claire offers to help instead. She removes several plastic cups as well as a square plastic container. Through the clear lid Claire sees something that looks like sushi.

“You still didn’t tell me what you bring for me,” Frank reminds her.

Hyun-Sook rolls her clouded eyes. “Gimbap and cinnamon punch. And I didn’t bring them for you.”

“Speaking of which,” Claire points out, “when are Sara and Art coming?”

Claire looks to Frank who seems to be the organizer of the event so far. He looks to Lucy who looks to Jamie.

“Seriously?” Violet asks, “Someone told them, right?”

“Told us what?” A voice inquires from behind Claire. Claire smiles — she doesn’t need to turn to know that the voice belongs to Sara, and Art is probably right beside her.

“You guys having a party without us?” Yes, Art is definitely with her.

Thankfully Lucy is clever enough to reach out and yank the lid off the cake box, giving the illusion that this was all part of the plan. Claire’s pretty sure it wasn’t.

“Happy Anniversary!” she shouts, and everyone echoes the sentiment at various times and volumes. Frank is last and loudest of all. Rory immediately sticks four of her fingers into the frosting despite her father’s quick interception.

“Thank you everyone. This is wonderful,” Sara says, making her way to an empty space around the blanket. As usual she doesn’t look the least bit surprised.

Art fidgets uncomfortably, mumbling something about not having to make a big deal about it but thanks and oh is that Hyun-Sook’s cinnamon punch? The pitcher is passed along the line and, as Claire pours some into a plastic cup and hands it to Art, Claire squints at her suspiciously.

“My first day, when you found me at the front door, you said you were a renter.”

Art takes a long sip and shrugs. “I am.”

“She just never left,” Sara adds. “She used to have your room until she moved into mine thirty years ago. She’s the reason I misplaced the attic steps.”

Sara winks at Claire while Art stares pointedly into her now empty cup. Everyone else looks at each other, trying to decide whether they misheard that last part.

“Well everyone, let’s tuck in,” Frank says, breaking the confused silence, which seems to have been his intention since his plate has mysteriously already been heaped with pasta salad and wraps.

The lunch is one of the best Claire has ever eaten and Beans seems to agree, gobbling up the scraps that everyone has accidentally dropped around the blanket. Though the writing on the cake is less than elegant, the cake itself is heavenly. Claire might have felt guilty for having seconds if everyone else hadn’t done so too. (Or fourths in both Frank and Rory’s cases).

The sun has nearly dipped below the horizon by the time Claire and Lucy begin packing up the blankets and remaining containers. The Gallaghers have retreated home to give Rory a (much needed) bath before bed. Sara and Art offer to help, but Lucy and Claire insist they spend the remainder of their thirtieth anniversary at home relaxing together. Art protests but Sara wraps her slender fingers around Art’s broad ones and simply drags her away. Frank and Hyun-Sook remain, seated on a bench at the water’s edge, not talking, but staring silently at the darkening waves.

“Opa said you like books,” Lucy says as she brings two corners of Frank’s ugly blanket towards the two in Claire’s hands.

“There are people who don’t?” Claire jokes. Lucy laughs, but when she stops she looks distant.

“Mrs. Park has quite a collection. A lot of rare stuff,” she says, and Claire can tell she’s hinting at something. They finish folding the blanket without speaking and Claire gathers a yawning Beans into her arms.

“Must be hard to find audiobooks for that kind of stuff,” Claire realizes, “Or Braille.”

“Mm,” Lucy confirms Claire’s suspicion, “I’m not a great reader to be honest. Like in my head sure, but I stutter a lot out loud. Trip over stuff. I hate being picked in class.”

“My sister used to love being read to.” Claire glances over to Hyun-Sook. She’s speaking with Frank now and Claire wonders what they’re talking about.

Lucy nods but says no more on the subject as they carry their belongings over to the bench where the others are still talking.

“I don’t know. Jamie’s potato salad was good but that cake… and your punch…”

“You’re still talking about food?” Lucy accuses and Frank laughs, “I thought old people talk about wise, important stuff.”

“What’s more important than good food?” he counters.

Claire takes a deep breath, “Good books?”

She notices Hyun-Sook’s private smile as they stand to leave. The four of them walk back together, still laughing, mostly at Frank’s jokes though Hyun-Sook’s straight-man act is brilliant in its own right. Her remarks are good-humoured but still scathing and perfectly timed.  Claire pets Beans’ his soft white fur while watching the shifting stars on the lake’s surface. A part of her wishes this walk would never end.

Inside 53 Ganymede they are greeted by a strange man Claire has never seen before. His skin is deeply tanned, accentuating the wrinkles just beginning to creep across his face. Despite this, his hair and moustache are jet black with no hint of grey. If Claire had to hazard a guess, she’d say he was in his late thirties or maybe early forties.

“Marcus!” Frank shouts, “You just miss the most beautiful picnic!”

The man’s eyebrows sink, as do the corners of his mouth. “Don’t give me bad news the moment you see me. How about a welcome home first?”

Marcus? Claire’s confusion seems to roar in her ears, the sudden onslaught of questions overwhelming the pleasantries being exchanged before her. She only surfaces when her own name is mentioned.

“Marcus, this is Claire. Claire this is your next door neighbour Marcus,” Frank gestures from the man to Claire and back again.

“You’re Mr. Alvez?” Claire asks, shifting a sleeping Beans so she can reach out her hand. Then who was the man I met the other night?

“Yep. Marcus is better though,” he says, “Sorry I have to introduce myself and run but I’ve got a plane to catch.”

Claire notices then that there are a number of suitcases and bags scattered around the man’s feet. He’s wearing a blue canvas jacket and leather boots, and he drags his luggage out the door moments after they shake hands.

“That man is a whirlwind,” Hyun-Sook says once the door closes.

“Sure has an exciting life,” Frank agrees, yawning as he heads up the stairs next to Lucy, “Come by for some leftover cake tomorrow, both of you. I’ll eat it myself otherwise.”

“He really will,” Lucy urges them.

Claire and Hyun-Sook both agree, watching him continue to yawn as he tromps up the staircase with his granddaughter.

“So you like reading,” the older woman says, also heading up the stairs though at a much slower pace. Claire follows.

“Usually. I didn’t bring any books with me when I moved, so I’ve fallen out of the habit. Sara said there’s a bookstore not far from here.”

“Yes, I’ve sent Lucy once or twice on a scavenger hunt for me. You should see my collection some time.” They stop on the second floor landing, outside of Hyun-Sook’s door. Claire hesitates before continuing up the stairs.

“I’d love to. What kind of books do you read?” Claire crosses her fingers and hopes the woman’s tastes are at least remotely in line with her own. She’s not sure she can picture herself reading aloud from dry histories or steamy romances.

“Oh, most things really. I have a particular love for folklore and mythology. The more obscure, the better.” She unlocks her door and begins to step inside.

“That sounds wonderful, I’ll stop by sometime,” Claire says, and on a whim adds, “Have you ever read any legends about an egg? Like as a gift?”

Hyun-Sook turns, and Claire catches a glimpse of a large patch of grey hair she had previously missed; the black hair originally pinned over it has come loose. “Eggs are very common in storytelling. Sometimes they are the origin of the world. Or a giant’s heart. Or the path to wealth.”

“I don’t think I’m looking for something quite as grandiose as a golden egg.” Claire smiles politely, suddenly feeling silly for bringing it up.

“Hmm. Well, if it was a fairytale one might try putting it beside their bed or under their pillow. That often brings some kind of enlightenment.”

“Thank you,” Claire says, suddenly eager to return to her own apartment and her bed. She doesn’t realize until she’s on the last step that she perhaps should have asked about the stranger in the backyard. She files it away for another day.

Footsteps beat an uneven tempo on her apartment ceiling. They’re hardly noted, having become such a regular occurrence. Claire deposits Beans onto her bed where he whines and kicks his back leg without waking.

The egg with its vein-like cracks still rests in its bowl on the shelf. Claire picks it up, inspecting it for any signs of change. There are none. It remains a mystery, and Claire tries not to think about the possibility that it is a question without answer. A riddle with no purpose, let alone solution. Sighing, she lifts the pillow on her bed but then replaces it. The egg will almost definitely be crushed under the weight of her head if she leaves it there. Instead, she places it on the wooden floorboards underneath her bed.

Close enough, she figures.

She moves to the window, staring out at the lake and the now empty park. For a moment she thinks she sees a bright blue light flicker on the pier jutting out just beyond their picnic spot. When she blinks it is gone.

In bed, her mind churns with so many thoughts and unanswered questions that she wonders if sleep will ever come. But it has to, she thinks, because maybe — just maybe — tonight I can find the answer to at least one.

<— Back to Episode 5

Continue to Episode 7 —>

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