Episode 9 – The Crimson Door

The street is teeming with darkness and life. Halos of fluorescent light illuminate the drifting capes of heroes and vampires, the furry ears of cats and werewolves, and the snug winter coats hanging on the shoulders of the younger children. Occasionally a brief flurry mottles the light before subsiding into a light drizzle.

“Look at that one, over there! Who is he supposed to be anyway? Freddy Mercury? Anyway he should have a coat on… or at least a long sleeved shirt…”  Violet Gallagher rubs her arms, and shivers as though she is the one out in the frigid night air and not watching from the warm safety of the smaller of 53 Ganymede’s two sitting rooms.

“They’re young, Violet. They don’t even feel the cold like we do.” Art shrugs as she speaks and then rushes over to the front door where three smaller trick-or-treaters are just about to knock.

“I’m not that old,” Violet mumbles and sneaks a wink at Claire who is kneeling beside her, their legs sinking into the sofa cushions while their arms rest on its back so they can watch the spectacle out of the window. They both grin as they hear Art’s rehearsed cackle and the gleeful giggles of the children as they accept their candy.

“You’re enjoying this far too much,” Claire teases as Art returns, readjusting her pointed black hat. Art ignores her, snatching a mini chocolate bar from the large bowl by the front door.

“Throw one of those over here,” Violet calls, and Art tosses two. Violet shares the second with Claire.

“Going to raid the kids’ stash after they go to bed?” Claire asks.

Violet chuckles, “Of course!”

“How come you didn’t go with them this year?” Art asks after seeing to another troupe of children.

“Feeling a little under the weather. Upset stomach. Probably shouldn’t even eat this,” she says before finishing off her chocolate.

“Flu?” Claire asks.

Violet’s lips twitch. “Don’t worry, it isn’t anything catching.”

Claire’s eyes open wide, and she raises an eyebrow in askance. Violet nods, unable to contain her joyful grin a second longer. Art claps her hands and throws her another chocolate bar. “Oooh, then you better have another one of these.”

“You’re the first to know, aside from family of course. So don’t spill the beans just yet.”

Hearing his name, Beans comes rushing over from where he was napping somewhere on the first floor – probably near the fireplace in the other sitting room. As soon as he struggles his way up onto the couch beside Claire, lifting his paws between her arms and licking her face, he notices the horde of strangers passing by outside and begins yipping madly.

“He seriously didn’t notice until now?” Violet shakes her head, trying to pet the white tornado of fur beside her.

Claire sighs, “I better take him for a walk. Can you watch him for a minute while I go and grab my coat?”

“You should have sent him to the store with Sara, or out with Jamie and the kids!” Art shouts at Claire’s back as she jogs up the stairs.

Inside Claire’s apartment she is greeted by the usual footsteps pacing this way and that above her head. They’ve become so ingrained in her expectations that she notes their absence more often than their presence. Claire snatches her coat from where it lays on her bed, shoves her feet into a pair of rubber boots, and grabs Beans’ leash before rushing out into the hall and almost colliding with Marcus Alvez.

“Oh! Mr. Alvez, I’m sorry,” Claire says, noting how close she was to pushing him down the stairs.

“Marcus,” he reminds her, “And it’s fine. I could use a little excitement after such a long trip.”

To emphasize he lets go of the luggage trailing beside him, raises his hands to his back and stretches forward, eliciting a number of sharp cracks. Claire winces. “Yikes. Where are you coming back from?”

“Ecuador,” he says.

“For work?” Claire prompts, her curiosity louder than the sharp yips echoing up the stairwell.

“Yes. And pleasure.”

“What do you do?” She presses further.

“Buying and selling. Some collecting. A little of this and a little of that.” He tilts his head from side to side, and finishes with a knowing smile.

“Ah,” Claire says, before another curiosity nags at her attention, “Oh, do you ever… collect coins?”

Marcus squints, his thick black brow obscuring his chestnut-coloured eye. “Sometimes. Why?”

“Hold on.” Claire runs back into her apartment, fetching the fish coin she’d thrown into the fountains at Le Chateau de Verre. “Ever see anything like this?”

“Hmm…” he says as he holds it up closer to the light. “Nope. Nothing like this. I’d say it’s privately made… can’t be too old, although it does look pretty worn. Where’d you get it?”

He hands it back to her and Claire struggles to think of a reasonable answer as she slides it into her pants pocket. “Well, it was sort of a gift. I found it. Um…”

“It was a gift, but you found it?”

Claire hesitates and stares down at her boots. “Yes.”

“Was it in a brown paper package?”

Claire’s heart skips a beat, then scrambles to catch up. “Yes. Yes it was. How did you know?”

Marcus’ eyes narrow as he quietly analyzes her face, taking in her desperation and excitement. Finally he breaks eye contact and throws his head up toward the ceiling. “Fine. Here.”

He unzips his black suitcase and shuffles for a moment before producing a small cardboard box. He hands it to her and when she begins to lift the fitted lid he places his hand over hers. “I’m going to tell you where to take this, but you can’t open it. The person it’s intended for might be able to answer your questions. I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m too tired to go anyway and if you’re here… well, I don’t think it will be a problem.”

Marcus lifts his hand and Claire removes her own from the top of the box.

“You’re going to go straight downtown to Harris Street and follow it until it turns into Aberdeen. Turn right onto Yew Street and keep walking,” Marcus says.

Claire waits patiently for the rest of the instructions, but they don’t come.

“Then what?”

“Then you’ll either know where you need to go or you’ll give up and bring the package back here. Now take that crazy mutt for a walk so I can get some sleep.” Without any further explanation he turns and drags his suitcase to his apartment door, struggling with his keys until he eventually disappears into his apartment. Claire notices the subtle scent of peppermint mixed with something like tobacco smoke escape in the brief moment before the door closes.

She looks down at the box in her hand, willing away the temptation to peek inside. Instead she slips it into her coat pocket and hurries downstairs to collect Beans.

Despite the icy rain and snow, the walk to Yew Street is enjoyable and brief – only about twenty minutes. From the safety of her fur-lined hood Claire watches the colourful costumes as they pass and listens to the chatter and laughter of the families strolling from house to house. Occasionally a child politely asks to pet Beans before giggling and continuing on their way. All of the attention and bustling activity overwhelms the poor dog, and Claire resorts to carrying him while she looks for wherever it is she’s supposed to take the box.

The wind chimes are what give it away. The house itself is nothing out of the ordinary – a single storey lined with dirty siding, its long-faded colour impossible to discern in the darkness, and a sagging porch with a crooked wooden railing. It isn’t until Claire dismisses it, passing it by to examine the next house – almost as shabby as this one – that she hears the faint tinkle of metal. It seems significant to her, and she is suddenly very aware of the weight of the coin in her pants pocket and the box in her coat.

She stops and listens. There are no trick-or-treaters on this side of the street and so she closes her eyes; she can feel the pinpricks of cold where snowflakes land on her eyelashes.

Again — a metallic jingle. It grows, joined by the clatter and hollow echoing of wooden chimes, the sound swelling into a pleasant crescendo that tickles at Claire’s memory, evoking a comfortable sense of nostalgia.

Claire turns around and sees them then, hanging from the awning of the crooked old house. Dozens of chimes – all different shapes and sizes. One is made of keys hanging from fishing wire, another from long bamboo tubes, while others are constructed of glass beads, or bottles, or silverware. Surely none of them were there a moment ago.

That’s when Claire notices the door: crimson with a half circle of stained glass at its top and an ornate golden handle. Its elegance is stark against the shabbiness of the house. And most importantly, it now rests ajar.

Claire hugs Beans’ warm body close against her and takes careful steps up the rotting wooden steps. Beans seems content, only sniffing lazily towards the door, which Claire interprets as a good sign. She knocks gently on the door, but doesn’t wait long. She knows she is meant to enter.

“Hello?” Claire calls, stepping into a tidy entryway. Beyond is what was probably meant to be a living room, but is instead home to stacks of books and shelves lined with figurines and knickknacks. The space is crowded, but not disorderly. Claire squints, but it is impossible to make out titles or details in the scant light from the street lamps outside.

Suddenly Beans begins to squirm, squeezing out of Claire’s arms and skittering away across the linoleum toward a doorway that must lead to the kitchen.

“Beans!” Claire whispers, “Beans get back here.”

She can hear his nails on the floor and the snuffling of his wet nose as he searches for something. Probably food.

Claire groans and slips her feet out of her wet boots to give chase, sliding on the slick floor in her sock feet. As she turns into the kitchen she grabs the doorway for support, freezing when she sees the woman sitting at a table against the wall. She wears a floral nightgown which hangs off of her bone-thin frame, and her short hair is stark white against her dark skin. She is old – very old Claire thinks. Impossibly old, even. And there is Beans, begging on the floor by her feet.

“I’m sorry…” Claire stammers, but the woman ignores her, snatching a scrap of something off of a plate in front of her and leaning down to pass it to Beans who licks at it eagerly.

“You’re a good boy now, aren’t you? Yes. Yes you are,” the old woman coos. She wipes her hands on her night gown as she sits up and finally acknowledges Claire with a smile. “You have something that isn’t yours.”

Claire quickly reaches into her pocket and passes the unopened box to the woman. “Marcus… Uhh… Mr. Alvez asked me to bring this to you.”

The woman takes the box and lifts the lid, revealing what looks to Claire to be nothing more than a couple of rocks. She nods approvingly and sets the box on the table. “Thank you.”

“You…You’re welcome,” Claire says.

“But that’s not what I was talking about.”

Claire’s right hand pants pocket feels warm suddenly, and heavy. She reaches in and pulls out the mysterious coin. She’s still staring at its bright silver face when the woman speaks again, “Ah. Yes. That one.

Claire holds it forward, as she did the box, but this time the woman makes no move to take it. Instead she grabs another piece of whatever is on the plate – the remains of a sandwich Claire decides – and passes it down to Beans. Claire continues holding the coin, thrust out towards the woman, unsure what she should do with it. Perhaps just leave it on the table?

When the woman sits upright again, she heaves a heavy sigh.

“If it found its way to you, then by all means take it. You’ve got as good a chance of getting it where it’s meant to go as I do,” she says.

Claire lowers her arm slowly. “What is it?”

The woman chuckles. “Hell if I know. I don’t choose the gifts, I just see that they’re delivered.”

“Did you deliver my egg?” Claire asks, her stomach clenching in anticipation, “Do you know who it was from? What it was for?”

The woman’s mouth twists, deepening the laugh lines bordering her lips. She considers Claire for a moment before answering. “What’s your name?”

“Claire Brown.”

“Claire,” the old woman rolls the word around in her mouth as if tasting it, appraising its flavour on her tongue like a fine wine, “Yes. Well, I packaged and labelled it. These days Alice does most of the delivering part.”

Alice, Claire thinks. The young girl in the outdated clothes.

“Can you tell me anything about it?” Hope burns like a red hot coal in her chest, waiting for a breath to stoke it into a proper fire.

“Not much. I’ve done this for a lot… and I mean a lot of years and I still don’t know half of the things that come through here. People bring me things… people like your Marcus Alvez, and I pack them up and address them.”

“How do you know where they go?” Claire asks.

“I just do,” she says, leaning over again to pat Beans. He licks her fingers, searching for crumbs or maybe just to thank her for the meal. Either way, it comforts Claire and makes her feel safe. The woman lifts his tiny body up onto her lap and continues. “Sometimes I know the name, or maybe it’s a sign: a flower, or herb, or even something silly like a stick of a certain kind of gum. And then there’s a place and a time. Used to be that I delivered, walking around until I found the place, but now Alice is in charge of that end of the operation.”

Claire thinks there is a hint of regret in the woman’s voice, but then she smiles and Claire becomes uncertain.

“You had an egg, hm? Eggs are for memories. Fragile and contained little pieces of ourselves. Looks like someone is trying to remind you of something. Or maybe trying to help you forget.”

“But who?” Claire begs.

The old woman lifts Beans in one arm – asleep now he’s filled his stomach – and uses the other to leverage herself up onto her feet from the table. She takes slow, uneven steps toward Claire and gently hands the pup over. He’s so tired the transfer doesn’t even wake him. She walks past Claire through the doorway and towards the door.

“I’ve got to get to bed now or else Alice will be cross with me in the morning. I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers,” she says.

Claire follows and slips into her boots while balancing Beans in one arm against her shoulder. Claire isn’t sure how she should answer, so she just says, “Thank you.”

The woman opens the door onto the chilly street, now devoid of life and littered in snowfall.

“Oh,” the woman says as Claire steps out, “If you manage to find the recipient of that coin I’d be greatly indebted to you. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to deliver it and every time it always makes its way back here. It’s the only package that’s ever eluded me. Maybe you’ll have better luck, Claire Brown.”

Hearing her name triggers something in Claire’s muddled thoughts, and she turns to ask the question she’s somehow managed to forget. “By the way, what’s your…”

The door is closed. It is grey, old white paint peeling from the aged wood.

“Name,” she finishes.

She looks down at Beans, sleeping soundly in her arms, and she hurries home through the cold and silent night.

<— Back to Episode 8

Continue to Episode 10 —>

 

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