Clara felt someone grab her arm. She stopped walking but didn't turn around. She didn't need to – she knew it was Nicholas before he spoke.

"Clara, wait--" he said. "Please... We haven't known each other long enough to have a fight."

She just stood there. "Let him talk to the back of my head for a while," she thought.

Nicholas did just that. "My Uncle Kevin..." he said. "I know he can come off as kind of a--"

She turned. Nicholas' voice was shaking and she needed to see his face.

"He's completely rude," Clara said. "What's his problem with me? He doesn't even know me."

"Kevin doesn't have a problem with you," Nicholas said. "It's the Castle. He's always been... kind of protective of that place. And of the people who used to work there with him."

Clara could see that Nicholas was genuinely concerned. She was considering her response when the front door of the Giant Brine opened and a large family entered, passing between Clara and Nicholas. Clara tried to keep hold of her anger until the family had moved past them, but each person who walked by lessened that anger until the last one – a large grandmother with a fluffy lavender boa – pushed her way through. The woman didn't even notice that she'd knocked Clara up against the wall, tickling her nose with the boa as she lumbered by. Nicholas cracked up at the sight of Clara recoiling from the unintentional accessory attack.

Once she was free, Clara stepped away from the wall. She struggled to regain her composure. "Okay, that was ridiculous," she said, scratching her nose. Nicholas nodded in agreement, still chuckling.

"I really do have to get back to my aunt," Clara said, giving him a softer look, "but you can walk with me if you want."

Nicholas nodded and they stepped out of the restaurant. Clara saw that the sun had set and only then realized how much time had passed since she'd left Aunt Maureen. Maybe it was a good thing that Nicholas was with her – this being her first time walking through Breach Point after dark.

Clara spun around, getting her bearings. "Oh right – it's this way, I think..." she said as she headed north. Nicholas kept up with her, trying to find his way back into the conversation.

"So yeah... Kevin really isn't a bad guy," Nicholas said. "That group is just really close."

"Mmm hmm," Clara said. She wanted to hear more about how the confrontation wasn't her fault.

"And you wouldn't know this," Nicholas continued, "but the fire that took down the Castle was horrible. Our cousin Kenny was one of the firefighters that got called to put it out. He was burned really bad."

"Oh. I had no idea," Clara said. "What started the fire?" Her frustration at Nicholas for not defending her was completely gone now, though she wasn't ready to show that just yet.

Nicholas shook his head as they turned the corner onto Central Ave. "No clue," he said. "The Castle had been closed for months and it wasn't going to reopen. The township planned to demolish it, but the night before that was supposed to happen, the whole thing went up in flames. They never found out what caused it."

"Wow," Clara said. Her mind ran through different scenarios, imagining how the fire could have started.

Nicholas continued. "Everyone in town came out to watch the Castle burn. And this kid, Eric – he was caught inside. This was 1984. Uncle Kevin said those kinds of attractions were nowhere near as safe then as they are now. Eric never made it out." Nicholas said the boy's name in a whisper.

"How tragic," Clara said, meaning it. "Wait – what was was Eric doing in the Castle if it was closed down?"

Nicholas hesitated. "I never really got that. Eric didn't actually work at the Castle. He was younger than my uncle and his friends. He was kind of like their gofer. Sometimes he'd just sleep in one of the rooms, and somebody learned that he was inside the night of the fire. Kenny tried to find him, but he couldn't. The smoke was too thick."

Clara closed her eyes. She tried to push the image of the scene out of her mind, but she wasn't able to.

"That is... it's just so terrible," she said.

"Yeah," Nicholas said, looking down.

"Now I understand why your uncle is so sensitive about the topic," Clara said. "Thank you for explaining, Nicholas."

He gave her a nod and a little smile. They turned off Central Ave and onto a side street. Something in Nicholas' pocket buzzed. He pulled out his phone and looked at its screen.

"Aw, crap," he said. "I have to take off now."

"Really?" Clara asked. "If my aunt is still awake, I thought you could stop in--"

Nicholas cut her off. "I'm sorry. I'll come by another time. Promise." He slid his phone back into his pocket, then looked up as if he'd just remembered something – though Clara thought the expression seemed rehearsed. "So, are you going to come to the festival?" he asked.

"Let me check with my aunt," Clara said. "I think she'll be okay with it."

"Cool," Nicholas said. "I'll give you my number so we can meet up."

Clara looked embarrassed. "I actually don't have a phone," she said. "Long story."

Nicholas just stared at her. He looked like he was waiting to hear "just kidding."

"And I don't have a pen or paper either," she said. "But it's okay. I'll just find you at the festival."

"You sure?" Nicholas asked.

"Yes," she said. "Just make sure you're there now. I don't want to be hunting around for you, looking like an idiot!" She made sure to exaggerate her tone so Nicholas would realize that she was kidding – though she tried to hold back enough so it wouldn't come off as flirtatious.

Nicholas, now fully running backward, practically screamed back. "Don't worry! I wouldn't miss it!" he called out. "See you there!"

Clara waved him off. As she walked the rest of the way back to Aunt Maureen's house, she couldn't help but think how little it took for a new environment to be transformed into something warm and welcoming. Amazingly little.

------------------

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- Steve


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