Prologue: Claire Novak
Claire Novak was born one week and four days early. There were three people in the delivery room other than the perquisite doctors and nurses. Her mother: Amelia Novak. Her father: James Novak. And then there was the third person. And in many, many ways, ways both painful and beautiful and everything in between, that third person was the most important of all. His name was Castiel Novak. And he was James’ identical twin brother.
But that’s not important quite yet.
All that matters right now is that when Claire Novak was born there were three faces looking down into her blue eyes. Three people to remember and know and understand. Three people to love and hate and miss with all her heart and soul.
But that’s not quite important yet either.
From the beginning Claire Novak was the only one who could accurately tell Castiel and James apart every single time. Even Amelia would sometimes make the classic slip-up of asking her husband to do something and then realizing that the only other person in the room was his twin. When Claire was very young she didn’t understand where the confusion came from. It didn’t matter that they had the same face, the same shape, everything that was Daddy and everything that was Castiel was different. When other family members, other uncles, aunts, even her mother, asked Claire about it all she could say was this:
“Casti is Casti. Daddy is Daddy. Duh.”
Even as a toddler who couldn’t quite pronounce ‘Castiel’, Claire had sass. She would need it down the road. But again, that’s not quite important yet.
As a small child Claire saw her uncle Castiel’s apartment as a kind of wonderland. It was a magical place full of bright colors and strange things and paint to play with and a typewriter that made a funny ding whenever she finished a line and papers and pencils and art everywhere. Mommy and Daddy would sometimes say that Castiel was ‘irresponsible’ and a ‘bad influence’ and that his apartment wasn’t safe for a child. But Claire treasured the time she could spend with her uncle. She loved how he would sweep her into his arms and carry her around his workroom and tell her all about his paintings and projects and the meaning of life and the stories behind the constellations and the life cycle of bees and all sorts of fascinating things.
When she was three she saw her first beehive. Castiel very carefully pulled out a honeycomb from the hive he kept on his balcony and showed her all the bees busy at work and all of the tiny honey combs they swarmed over in a busy mess of black and yellow and gold. When she told Mommy about it when she got home she thought Amelia might faint. That night she overheard Daddy talking very quietly and intensely with Castiel over the phone, words hissing out like furious steam between his teeth, hot and intense and a bit scalding. She didn’t know what the words meant exactly, but she could sense that perhaps she or her uncle had done something wrong.
Claire’s afternoons with Castiel grew fewer and farther between and he never showed her the bees again.
The fire changed everything.
It had been a quiet evening. Claire, now five years old and very proud of it, ran to answer the door. Her uncle Castiel stood in the doorway, a bag slung over his shoulder, his worn old trench coat hanging around his shoulders like an old friend. When she ran to hug him he smiled at her, but there were lines around his eyes and his hug was looser and tired-er than normal. But little Claire didn’t notice.
Daddy walked over and took Castiel’s bag, placing a hand on his shoulder and gripping it tight. “You okay, little brother?” he asked.
“Little brother? I think not. And I am quite aquamarine.”
Daddy snorted, “You know I don’t get it when you talk in your little color-coded riddles.”
“I know. Why do you think I say them?”
“You always were a mess.”
There was a pause.
“Seriously, bro, how’re you holding up?”
“Meg is holding my personal possessions hostage. How do you think I am ‘holding up’?”
“Ooh, ex is already fighting dirty? I’m sorry, man. Come on; let’s get you into the kitchen so Amelia can feed you. You look starved. And leave the trenchcoat, you know Amelia hates it.”
Daddy carried the duffle bag off. Only Claire heard Castiel murmur “Thank you, brother,” as he ran a weary hand down his face.
Claire, at a loss, hugged him one more time and grabbed his hand and tugged him towards the warm kitchen and comforting family.
It was a quiet evening.
Castiel slept on the couch that night. Peace slowly descended on the Novak house. A sneaking, creeping quiet that should have warned them that something terrible was going to happen that night.
No one knew what started the fire. Claire didn’t really recall much from that night. Her memories were jagged and sharp, grating against her mind like a broken bone left unset. Bright flames licking their way through the house with their hot little tongues, smoke swirling around, gagging and choking her. A wet trench coat and strong arms wrapping around her, flying – or maybe running – it was all very jumbled, through the burning house. Voices shouting and screaming. Her knees hitting the pavement, strangers in firefighter coats and doctor uniforms swarming all around her. Footsteps pounding away. Shrugging off the coat and turning in time to see the retreating back of Castiel bolting back into the house.
The burning house.
After that it was just a bunch of shouting.
“Stop that man!”
“What the hell is he doing?!”
“The house is going to collapse!”
“Jimmy! Amelia! James Novak, goddammit! Jimmy, where the fuck are you?”
The last voice seemed to grow louder and louder even though technically Claire shouldn’t have been able to really hear it at all. It was Castiel’s voice, rising in desperation, breaking and cracking in the smoke and the blaze just like the house Claire had been sleeping in minutes before.
Castiel dragged Amelia out. And he went back in for his twin. The paramedics had to drag both of them out. Claire watched it happen, beyond even crying.
Only three of the four people in the house that night survived. Claire, who had only minor smoke inhalation and a burn or two. Amelia, who upon regaining consciousness began sobbing incoherently; babble buzzing at her lips like angry bees. Most of her injuries were smoke and psychological. And finally, one of the twins survived. Claire didn’t see which one at the hospital. All she knew, in the vague, slightly omniscient way that children have, was that there had been some confusion as to which twin had lived. Apparently the survivor was still unconscious and Amelia was in no fit state to identify him. There was no next of kin available at the time. No one thought to ask Claire, the one person who had always been able to tell.
They ultimately decided the coma patient must be James Novak. The paperwork filled out, the forms all signed. Apparently Castiel Novak was dead. Claire cried. It was a few more days before the comatose man awoke. He was discharged quietly a day or so later, the orderlies and staff solemnly addressing him as ‘Mr. Novak’ as they wheeled him out to his taxi. Amelia and Claire followed suit the next day.
A few days of hotel rooms later found them suddenly standing in front of the door to Castiel’s old apartment. And when the door opened and the burned man greeted them in a smoke-roughened voice, Claire knew that the hospital had made a terrible mistake.
Castiel had lived. Jimmy, Daddy had died. And somehow, someway, the hospital had bungled things. Because this was Castiel standing there, looking down at her with weary blue eyes. It was almost funny. In that moment, in that second everyone there but Castiel himself knew that one clerical error had turned him into his twin.
A few days passed. Things began to reach some sort of ‘normal’ point. Even if that ‘normal’ was the fun-house mirror equivalent of such a thing. And then Amelia went out to get groceries for the first time since the fire. She left early in the morning, before Castiel or Claire was awake. That morning Claire woke before Castiel. She wandered into the kitchen and saw a pile of food-filled plastic grocery bags sitting on the countertop, a single sheet of paper fluttering underneath them. Somehow knowing that it was important, much more important than bread or eggs or whatever else was lurking in those plastic bags, she tugged it free. The five year old squinted at the print but couldn’t decipher the script. Despairing of understanding the note, she carried it over Castiel’s sleeping form. The tiniest of shakes made him leap into wakefulness, the man sitting bolt upright in the middle of the bed, blinking down at his niece.
“This was with the groceries,” Claire held out the note.
Castiel plucked it from her fingers and read it in under a minute. Each word seemed to dig a new furrow in his face, dragging it down into lines even heavier and wearier than before. After he finished skimming it, Castiel folded it into tiny sections, creasing sharper and sharper as he went. Finally he couldn’t fold anymore. Looking down at the paper as if it had offended him, Castiel huffed, pulled it out of its careful folds, smoothed it flat, glowered at the scrap of notebook paper for a solid five seconds, then tore it into confetti. Tossing the scraps over his shoulder he bounced to his feet and began pacing around the apartment, grabbing luggage and bags and boxes wherever and whenever he could, tossing things into them with a kind of manic hap-hazardness.
When Claire finally managed to get his attention she asked, “What are you doing?”
“The question is: what are we doing?”
“Ok, what are we doing?”
“Leaving. We are fucking leaving.”
“Language,” Claire parroted the words she had heard oft-repeated by her parents. Before the fire, of course. Everything normal happened before the fire.
“We are flipping leaving, then. You and me. We are leaving.”
“What about Mommy?”
“She beat us to it.”
And that was that. Castiel didn’t tell Claire what was in the note until she was much older. It had been simple and to the point.
This is all just too much right now. Take care of Claire, I’m going…somewhere. I’ll let you know.
Don’t try to find me.
And that was how Claire’s father died, and her mother left, and her uncle, the third person in the delivery room, become the most important of them all.
They stopped running somewhere in the Midwest. One day they were in a diner, facing each other across a chipped formica table, eating burgers and fries, drinking shakes and trying to pick a slice of pie for dessert. Castiel stopped, the burger halfway to his mouth when he froze and lowered the food. He slowly rotated his head, taking in the whole of the diner with wide blue eyes. Claire mimicked him, unsure what was going on. Halfway through their second head-rotation, Castiel’s eyes met hers across the table.
“This place is perfect.”
Claire nodded eagerly, catching some of the energy pouring off of Castiel in waves as he registered the sheer ‘perfectness’ of the place and the town and the universe all around them. He seemed to absorb it, drawing it into his still body, building off of it, drinking the energy of the slice of world they currently sat in.
And Claire knew he didn’t mean eco-friendly. He was using that weird color-code thing that had driven Daddy a little crazy. The one that made perfect sense to little five-year-old Claire. He hadn’t used the color-code since the night before the fire.
“A green place,” Castiel murmured.
“We could stay, here, in this town,” Claire suggested quietly.
Castiel blinked and looked at her in surprise. “Yes,” he murmured, “Yes, this might do nicely.”
Claire watched his face intently for a minute or so, waiting for a decision to flicker across his expressive eyes.
The minute passed. Castiel blinked and furrowed his brow at her, dropping out of his little mental world and watching her with his head cocked to the side like a bird. “You know we’re staying in this town, right? I wouldn’t want it to come as a shock.” His eyes crinkled on the last few words. He was teasing her, but he was also serious. They were finally staying somewhere. Relief bloomed in her stomach and she almost couldn’t finish her lunch, she was so happy. Almost. They did end of eating three slices of celebratory pie between the two of them.
It was almost as if the town itself wanted the strange man and little girl to stay. The very next day Castiel stumbled upon a man who was trying to sell his used bookstore so he and his wife could finally retire. Castiel made a cash offer in the middle of the gas station convenience store. The man laughed for a good minute before he realized Castiel was serious.
A day later, sitting in on their boxes in the middle of the apartment above their newly purchased used bookstore, Claire decided that they needed ground rules if they were going to stay somewhere permanently. Ground rules were a thing one had when in a house. Mommy and Daddy had always had them. She and Castiel could have some too.
The first one they decided was this: they had to keep pretending that Castiel was Jimmy. Little Claire didn’t quite get why but she knew that Castiel said that if the government found out that he wasn’t actually Claire’s daddy they might try to take her away. And that was too terrible an idea for the five year old to contemplate. So they pretended that he was Jimmy.
Claire countered the first rule with her own offer. If she had to pretend he was Daddy in front of other people then she had to be allowed to call Castiel whatever she wanted when it was just the two of them. To this Castiel responded by looking her straight in the eye and promising this: “No matter what, no matter where you are, no matter what name you use for me, I will always be there when you call me.” And that was how Castiel Novak (now known as Jimmy) spent a whole year as ‘Steve’, a solid two weeks as ‘Unicorn’ and a month as ‘Sparkles’.
There were more rules, little silly things. Most of them were for Claire, ordinary things like bedtime and ‘do your homework’ and ‘try to make your bed semi-regularly’. Some Claire made up for Castiel when she was older and realized that you can put the eccentric artist in the bookshop but you can’t take the eccentricity out of the artist. It was mostly to prevent Castiel from being rude to tourists. The locals (for some bizarre reason yet to be understood by man) loved his abrasive and occasionally odd approach to customer service. Then again, a year after their move in-town Gabriel (an obscure Novak cousin the twins had known well as kids but had drifted away from as adults) opened a pastry shop in one storefront down from ‘Beehive Books’. And Gabriel was almost as bad as Cas in his own unique way.
And so eight years slid past and one day Claire woke up one day to realize that she was thirteen and her uncle/father figure was loudly heckling someone from the apartment’s front window. Great. It appeared they had a new neighbor. Groaning, not sure she wanted to face that insanity just yet, Claire rolled over and covered her ears with a pillow. She would face the music and the new neighbor later.