Chapter Five

November 16, 2019

            Almost a month had gone by, and Spring Break was finally upon her. As had been promised, she’d received extra information from Louis, including what time he would be by her apartment to pick her up. She was surprised he’d even remembered, honestly. She was surprised she’d met him at all.

            “Essie,” Daphne called, leaning in the window. “Your ride’s here.”

            Esmerie joined her and looked down to the front of the building. A sleek, simple town car sat at the curb, and the driver’s side door opened. Louis climbed out, not wearing the suit she’d met him in, but rather a long-sleeve, button-up shirt, and a pair of dark jeans. Though his clothes were casual, he still stood with his air of propriety.

            “I’d go meet him if I were you,” Daphne said under raised eyebrows. Esmerie’s attention returned to her surroundings, and she rushed to grab her purse.

            “I’ll see you later,” she called as she left the apartment. She trotted down the stairs, much more comfortable in her flats than she had been in her heels, and by the time she reached the second landing, she had caught up with Louis.

            She knew that because she nearly ran into him.

            “Louis!” she said as she stopped herself short. “I’m so sorry!”

            “Please do not apologize, Miss Brodeur,” he said with the smile she remembered from the party. “Are you ready for the orphanage?”

            “Uh, yeah.” She slung the strap of her purse across her body. “I wasn’t really sure what to bring.”

            “There isn’t anything in particular you will need. Please, come with me.” He led her down the rest of the stairs and out the front door of her building. The town car she’d seen from her window waited patiently, glistening in the sunlight. Louis approached it without breaking stride and opened the door to the back open for her.

            “Please, Miss Brodeur,” he said. She stared for a moment, unsure how to proceed, and unsure how to mention she felt a little awkward sitting in the back of a car that only had one other person in it.

            Eventually, she gave in and climbed into the back of the car. Louis shut the door behind her and rounded the car to enter the driver’s seat. He didn’t waste any time in starting the vehicle and pulling away from the curb. Esmerie watched the town pass by while she sat tense in the backseat. When a traffic light stopped them, Louis spoke.

            “You look lovely today, Miss Brodeur.”

            Her eyes popped open and she glanced down at her blue jeans and off-the-shoulder floral top in sky blue. She fussed with the sleeve’s elastic around her wrist and caught his eye in the rearview mirror. The deep blue was shimmering in the morning sunlight.

            “Thank you, Louis, but it really isn’t anything special.”

He smiled at her. “If you say so, Miss Brodeur.”

She tried desperately not to blush, pulling a blonde curl from her ponytail to wrap around her finger as she turned her attention back to the window. They began moving again and Louis resumed focusing on driving.

The streets got rougher and the buildings sagged as if tired as they headed toward the outskirts of the city. She watched a small child walk down the sidewalk with her parents, holding their hands, a skip in her step, when suddenly the little girl’s dark hair turned blonde. Esmerie turned away sharply, clutching at her elbows with her fingertips.

“Is everything alright, Miss Brodeur?” Louis’s voice came from the front seat, and she reacted, looking up.

“Oh, uh… Yeah,” she tried to sound definitive. “Everything’s fine.” She dared to turn her head to the window again, now that the family was gone, but she felt naked as she watched a piece of brick fall off the front of a building.

“Are you certain?” Louis asked her.

“Yeah, no, I just…” She tried to find a way to change the subject while pulling her focus back inside the car. “I was just thinking it might be better if you call me Esmerie.”

“I beg your pardon?”

They stopped at another traffic light and Louis turned slightly in his seat.

“It’s just that… You calling me ‘Miss Brodeur’ all the time makes it sound like you’re working for me. But you’re not. We’re both volunteers.”

“Yes, that’s true, but—”

“I just think it’s best if we acknowledge that we’re on equal ground. Otherwise the energy will be odd around the children. And they’re very sensitive to those things.”

She dared to look him in the eye, but he didn’t seem perplexed by her argument. Instead, he seemed to be seriously considering it, and he turned back around in his seat right as the light turned green.

“Very well, Miss Brodeur. When we get to the orphanage, we will be on equal ground. However, until then I’m afraid I must be stubborn.” He looked at her again through the rearview mirror. “Because as of right now, I am working for you.”

She smiled back at him and stared absently at the seat in front of her, not comfortable looking out the window any longer, until the car began to slow. They pulled up to the front of a low-rise building with peeling siding and shingles missing from the roof. A rusting playground sat to one side, with safety fences around it that were nearly falling over. Louis stopped the car and let himself out, and before she knew it he was opening her door.

            She stepped out of the car in slow motion, taking her time to fully absorb the orphanage without the window obstructing her view. The shutters on the windows were crisp and new, and the trim around the building had the chalky quality of freshly dried paint. Petunias and poppies danced around the edges of hydrangea bushes planted up against the porch, all proudly displaying their vibrant colors.

            “Please come with me, Miss Brodeur.”

            Louis’s voice caught her off guard, and she took a step before the words fully processed. She stopped in her tracks and gave Louis a pointed stare. He turned back to her with furrowed eyebrows.

            “You promised,” she said, and his eyes lit up in understanding.

            “You’re right. I apologize.” He watched his own feet shuffle for a moment before looking her in the eye again. “Esmerie.”

            Holding back a laugh at how much he looked like a nervous teenaged boy, she followed him through the front door of the orphanage.

            Hallways spread out on either side, leading to she didn’t know where. Dusty paint covered the walls, scratches and scuffs littered the floor, and water stains dotted the drop ceilings almost in a pattern. One door stood in shadows at the end of the hall to her left, and directly in front of her was a windowed office. Inside, two men were in heated debate, arms flailing and muffled yelling bouncing off the glass walls. Esmerie glanced over to Louis for help, but he stood steely faced as he watched the argument unfold. She turned back to watch it herself.

            “Let me give you a tour of the orphanage,” Louis said suddenly, looking down one of the hallways. She considered him for a moment, watching the muscle in his jaw work.

            “Alright,” she said finally. He began walking down the hallway to the right, the lack of light not seeming to bother him in the slightest.

            The emergency lights overhead made for an eerie setting, but they were strong in the light they produced. As they made their way down the hallway, she began to hear noises. They turned a soft corner, and she noticed doors propped open, and the elated screams of small children pouring out. She stretched her neck toward the open doorway, trying to see inside the room.

            “The gymnasium,” Louis told her. “This building used to be a school, but the royal family gave it to the director of the orphanage when his previous building was torn down.”

            “Why can’t I see inside the gym from here?”

            Louis shrugged slightly. “The doors lead right into the walls that make up the bleachers. You’d need to round that corner to be able to see anything inside.” He motioned with his finger to where the narrow doorway would open up to the full room. Esmerie stepped toward it, but Louis had other plans, turning down the adjacent hallway.

            “I was hoping to show you the rest of the building before introducing you to the children,” he said.

            “Oh,” she replied ingeniously. “Sure.”

            She followed him down the next hall, passing doors with little windows, all dark on the inside. She made a game of swerving around the patterned water stains on the ceiling, making the trip slightly more exciting. They neared the end of the hallway, and she could tell it opened out to the right again.

            “This is the cafeteria,” Louis told her. “And in front of us is the outer door that leads to the playground.”

            “Okay,” she said, remembering the worn jungle-gym she’d seen when they pulled up.

            “Would you like to go outside?”

            She glanced at him, her mouth slightly open. “Yeah.”

            He pushed open the door, and they made their way out into the yard. She shielded her eyes against the harsh contrast of the sun as she took in the playground. Cement covered the majority of the space, with a wood border separating the jungle-gym section. Even in the morning sunlight, it looked cold and dark. Louis stood next to her, saying nothing, and she finally found the courage to ask what she’d been wondering since they arrived.

            “Is that playset safe?”

            He didn’t look at her, but he tilted his head slightly. “It could use an update. But the staff is very attentive while the children are playing on it, so they don’t hurt themselves.”

            “They try really hard around here, don’t they?”

            He looked at her, the sunlight bouncing off his irises. He didn’t say anything for a while, but she watched as his expressions molded from shock to confusion, before settling on a soft admiration when he turned his attention back to the rusting equipment.

            “I’m glad you noticed.”

            She tucked her hands into the crook of her elbows. “It’s pretty easy to see, I think. Everything’s old, but they’ve been working on updates. I love that they care that much.”

            “They care more than that much,” he said, barely audibly. Then, he inhaled. “Let’s head back to the office and see if the director is free.”

            He led her to the other side of the playground, where another set of doors led them back inside. They walked silently down the dark hall, lined with more doors with little windows at the tops. They passed the door at the end that she’d seen when they entered the orphanage, and she peeked in the window to see a wonderfully expansive library inside.

By now, they’d circled back to the front of the orphanage and approached the front office. The argument was over, and a lone man sat at the desk toward the back, resting his head on his forearm. Esmerie exchanged glances with Louis, and he lifted his hand slowly to knock.

            The moment his knuckles tapped the glass, the man in the office looked up, locked eyes with Louis, and beckoned them to enter. Louis held the door open, and Esmerie stepped hesitantly inside. When the door clicked closed behind them, the director spoke.

            “Good morning, Louis.”

            “Good morning, sir,” Louis replied, nodding his head.

            Silence settled around them, and Esmerie tried to examine the office discreetly to disperse the awkward feeling. It was fairly spacious, unsurprisingly, if it was originally designed for a school, with the director’s desk taking up a majority of the space near the back wall. Stacks of papers were strewn all over the top, and an empty coffee cup sat uncomfortably close to the edge. Large potted plants stood next to the door, and a couple of sitting chairs filled the excess space. It was an office, surely, but it felt like a room in someone’s home.

            “Sir, if I may,” Louis said, breaking the silence, but the director stopped him.

            “Don’t worry about it, Louis, it’s nothing new.” His voice was tired, and it took a moment for Esmerie to realize they were talking about the argument that she and Louis had witnessed when walking in. She stole a glance at Louis, who looked rather defeated.

            “So,” the director spoke again, placing his hands on his desk and standing. “You must be Esmerie.”

            She started at the sudden address, thinking she really needed to fix that habit, then said, “yes, sir, I am.”

            “Well, it is wonderful to meet you.” He extended his hand and she shook it. “We appreciate your enthusiasm in volunteering. It’s nice to have an extra set of hands around here.”

            “Oh, please, it’s nothing.”

            “It’s not nothing.” The director pointed at her, a friendly but firm stare in his eyes. “Most people spend their free time on a couch somewhere. You’re not. It’s a big deal.”

            “Sir,” Louis sighed the way he did when the prince got carried away by his daydream.

            “Roland,” the director said, his finger-point turning on Louis. “You’re not one of my kids anymore, Louis. Use my name.”

            “One of your kids?” Esmerie asked before she could stop herself. The men stopped and looked at her. Louis went back to his teenaged boy habit and inhaled deeply.

            “Yes.” He caught her eyes dead-on. “The old orphanage that Roland used to run, the one that was torn down… was where I lived before I met His Highness. The royal family took me in as an apprentice, and they moved the orphanage here.”

            Esmerie studied Louis’s face, finding every emotion inside it. But he didn’t flinch. His shyness was gone, and his posture was stronger than ever.

            “They are very kind people, aren’t they, Louis? The Levancois.”

            The sparkle slowly returned to his eyes, and he smiled. “Yes.”

            “Well, I would leave you two alone, but this is my office, so I’m afraid I’m just going to have to ask you to continue this on your own time.”

            Esmerie broke eye contact with Louis and looked back at the director, confused. His arms were crossed, and a playful glint sat in the corner of his eye. When realization dawned on her, she felt the heat of a blush make its way to her cheeks.

            “Yes, sir,” Louis said from beside her, seemingly unphased by Roland’s joke.

            “Good.” The director sat back down in his desk chair. “Have you met any of the children yet, Esmerie?”

            “Uh—no,” she said, standing up a little straighter. The director nodded his head.

            “Well, then, I suggest you take a trip to the gymnasium.”

            “Yes, sir,” she and Louis said simultaneously. Louis turned around and exited the room before her, holding the door as she passed through. They retraced their previous path through the orphanage, turning the corner, heading to the gym.

            “I’m sorry about the director,” Louis told her as they approached the pool of light spilling out of the double doors.

            “What do you mean?”

            “His comment… About us…”

            “Oh!” she said slightly more enthusiastic than she meant to. “It’s alright, Louis, he was just kidding.”

            He hesitated, nodding his head slowly. “Right. You’re right.”

            They stopped right in the doorway of the gymnasium, the screams of the children playing games almost overwhelming in comparison to the garish silence of the surrounding hallways.

            “Are you ready?”

            She inhaled deeply. “Yes, absolutely.”

            He smiled. “You don’t need to look so tense. They are going to love you.”

            She smiled back. “Then let’s go.”

***

            Several hours later, as the sun began to set, Esmerie stood next to the rusted playground equipment, running her fingers over the pieces that were breaking. The children didn’t seem to mind, and as she watched them, they jumped over the places where the structure was less stable, and the older ones called out to the younger ones where not to put their hands. They’d adapted to their situation, and they managed to flourish.

            “Alright, everyone!” She heard one of the orphanage’s staff members yell over the voices of the children. “It’s time to come inside!”

            She walked around the playset and helped some of the smaller children jump down, holding their hands as they walked back to the building. One of them yawned, and she smiled.

            “Are you ready for bed?”

            The little boy shook his head. “No. I’m not that tired.”

            She pressed her lips together, still smiling. “Mhm.”

            “Besides,” one of the little girls holding hands with her said, “it’s too scary to go to sleep.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “The monster,” the other little girl said, her brown curls shuddering with the rest of her.

            “There’s a monster?” Esmerie asked. The children shook their heads unanimously.

            “A ghost,” the little boy said, sure of himself. “In the room right next to ours.”

            “A ghost is hardly a monster,” Esmerie said. “Has it ever been mean to you? Or anyone?”

            “It attacked me!” The first little girl pulled on her hand. “I left something in our room one day and went back to get it, and it ran right at me! It threw itself on my head! I couldn’t see!”

            Esmerie’s eyes narrowed. That doesn’t sound like something a spirit would do.

            “Yeah!” the girl with curls joined in, “One time I woked up in, like, the middle of the night! And I went to go to the bathroom, and I heard banging, and then I saw it, too, and it came running at me, and I was so scared I ran back into my room.”

            “Have you told anybody about it?” Esmerie asked. The children shook their heads.

            “There’s nothing the grown-ups can do,” the little boy said. “It’s a ghost, and it’s here to kill us.”

            “Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” Esmerie said as they caught up with the rest of the employees and children. “More often than not, spirits get scared because you’re scared. Next time you see it, just stay calm, and be nice. It may surprise you and be friendly in return.”

            “No it won’t!” the little boy cried.

            “You won’t know until you try,” Esmerie told him. “I had a ghost in my house when I was little. At first I was very scared of her, but later I found out she was a very nice lady. One time, there was a mean man trying to get into our house, and she pushed a vase off the shelf next to the door. It scared him so much he left us alone.”

            “Wow,” the little brunette said, staring at her in earnest. “She really did that?”

            “Yep, and she helped me with a lot of other things, too. She would often comfort me when I was sad.”

            “That doesn’t sound like something a ghost would do,” the other little girl said.

            “Oh, no, it’s actually very common for spirits to be kind. But you need to be nice to them, too. Otherwise you scare them.”

            “What are you all talking about?”

            Esmerie turned around to see Louis striding toward her. It was then that she noticed that the other staff members had already re-entered the building, and they were alone on the playground.

            “Miss Essie is telling us about the ghost that was in her house when she was little!” one of the little girls said, though Esmerie couldn’t distinguish which one the voice belonged to. She watched Louis’s eyebrows go up.

            “She is?”

            “Yeah,” the little boy said, “she’s trying to tell us that ghosts can be nice.”

            “Well,” Louis said, looking up at her. “Miss Esmerie is very wise. I’m sure she wouldn’t tell you that if she didn’t believe it to be true.”

            Esmerie’s head ducked into her shoulders. “I just didn’t want them to go to bed afraid of the ghost they’ve seen in the hall.”

            “There’s a ghost in the building?”

            “Yeah!” the children said, talking over one another to give Louis their personal paranormal accounts.

            “All right, all right,” Louis said, trying to calm them down. “We’ll worry about that in the morning. For now, let’s get you to bed. And if you get scared, just remember that you’re safe from the ghost as long as you’re together.”

            “Are you going to bring in your violin tomorrow, Louis?” the little girl with brown curls asked.

            “Yeah, are you?” the other little girl chimed in. “I wanna hear you play violin!”

            “I don’t think we’ll have time for that tomorrow,” he said, “but maybe sometime later in the week we can squeeze it in.”

            The children smiled, and he ushered them into the building. On the inside hallway, a female staff member paced the corridor, one hand in her hair, one hand on her hip. She checked her watch every couple of steps, but stopped when they walked in.

            “Oh, there they are! I thought I’d miscounted, or that we’d lost children. Thank you. I’ll get them to bed.” She took the children’s hands and disappeared with them into to one of the former classrooms.

            “Well, that was convenient,” Esmerie said, placing her hands on her hips.

            Louis chuckled. “They’re used to running the orphanage without us, so they’re very efficient.”

            “I suppose…”

            “And I suppose it’s about time for me to take you home.”

            “Right,” she said, pulling out her phone and checking the time, a text from Daphne lighting up on the screen as unread. “My roommate’s wondering if I’ll be back in time to eat.”

            “I think I can manage that,” he said, checking his watch. “But we’d better hurry.”

            As she began to follow him down the hall, she smiled to herself. He’d been relaxing more as the day went on, and he was finally talking to her as if they were on equal ground. She quickened her steps to be in stride with him about the time that he held the front door open for her.

            He unlocked the car when they were still several feet away, and once again Esmerie smiled. She broke out in a run.

            “Esmerie!” Louis called after her, but she didn’t stop running.

            She reached the car long before him and threw open the door to the passenger’s seat, climbing inside and settling herself in before he made it to the vehicle. When he opened the driver’s side door and sat down, she was beaming like a child who’d just received a perfect score on a test. He gave her a suspicious glance.

            “Equal ground,” she reminded him. He laughed a little and sighed.

            “All right.” He closed his door and settled into the seat, buckling himself in before starting the car.

            When they made it back out onto the street, she turned her attention to the passing buildings, the fun she’d had with the children starting to simmer out of her system. She’d started to feel calm again, and without moving, she addressed Louis.

            “You did it again, you know.”

            “I’m sorry?” He glanced away from the road and back again.

            “Back at the orphanage, when talking to the children. You called me ‘Miss Esmerie.’”

            “I did?”

            “You did.”

            He waited to answer again, and she looked over at him. He was watching the road, seemingly searching for the memory. She waited patiently for him to find it.

            Finally, “Oh. I guess I did. I’m sorry.”

            She laughed. “I’m just teasing, Louis.”

            She re-focused her attention on the scenery, watching as it got cleaner, shinier, more modern. “But I am glad at how you allowed yourself to relax around me.”

            They stopped at a red light, and he pulled his attention away from the road. “I am, too.”

            She smiled down into her lap. Prince Edward wasn’t the only one whose earnest nature could make someone shy. She was watching the other cars through the windshield when they pulled away from the intersection.

            “So what was the violin thing the children were talking about? Do you play?”

            “Oh, uh, yes. I do.”

            “Really? When did you learn that?”

            “Um… I was young. I suppose it was around the time the Levancois took me in that I started to learn.”

            “I guess that makes sense. But weren’t you busy with all the training you were going through?”

            “Yes, but…”

            When he trailed off, Esmerie glanced over at him again. “But what?”

            Louis gracefully guided the car onto a new street before he answered. “But one always finds time for what matters. If it’s something you love, there’s no such thing as ‘not enough time.’”

He smiled without taking his focus off traffic, and Esmerie decided to leave him alone while he drove. She sat back into her seat, slouching into the high-end leather, letting her tired head fall back onto the headrest.

When they made it back into town, and Esmerie could see the rising floors of her apartment building towering over the people milling about on the streets, she decided to ask Louis the question that had been on her mind.

“Louis, do you think it’s possible that the orphanage is a resting place?”

“I’m sorry?”

She shook her head. “The spirit the children mentioned. Do you think it’s real?”

“The children certainly believe so. But I’m not sure that I have much invested in the idea of the spirit world.”

            “Oh,” she said, crossing her arms and pulling on the fabric of her sleeves.

            Louis found a spot outside her apartment building and parked his car on the street. Once the car was stopped, he turned to look at her.

            “Do you think it’s real, Esmerie?”

            “I don’t know,” she said, daring to uncross her arms. She ran her forefinger around her wrist, tracing the inside of the elastic at the end of her sleeve. “With what the children were describing, the things that it had done, it didn’t sound much like a resident.”

            “But ghosts can be hostile, can’t they?”

            “Of course.” She sat up. “But when a resident doesn’t want someone around, the things that the intruder experiences are different than what the children were saying. It would be a—a force, or a pressure, stopping them from going somewhere,” she barely noticed her arms starting to circle and flair, “or—or things breaking, voices, pounding…”

            Her eyes made contact with Louis’s, and she stopped talking momentarily, seeing how seriously he was watching her, how much he was listening to her.

            “…not blinding them momentarily, not throwing itself on a little girl’s head. And the adults should have heard of it if it was a resident.”

            She looked up at him from underneath her lashes, and he was staring out the windshield, his eyes slowly moving back and forth. After a moment, he nodded, slowly.

            “Then I think it’s something we ask the staff about tomorrow. We’ll see if any of them have had wind of it, or any experiences. Maybe that will give us a better idea of what it is.”

            “Either way, something’s frightening the children, and the staff should be aware of it.”

            “You are absolutely right.” He smiled at her, the way he did when they were alone on the playground earlier that day. “It’s wonderful that you care about them, Esmerie.”

            She shrunk back down into her seat. “They’re children, Louis.”

            “Children that most people overlook. Or worse.”

            “I suppose.” She was back to playing with the elastic on her sleeve.

            “I’m sorry, that was a bit much. But I do think that it’s wonderful how much you care for the children. And they’ve certainly taken a liking to you, too.”

            “Yeah…”  She sat up again and reached for her purse, sitting on the floor by her feet. She slung it over her shoulder and scooted to the edge of the seat as she reached for the handle of the door. “You know, Louis,” she said as she caught his eyes one more time, “I’d like to hear you play the violin, too.”

            He smiled at her as she pushed the door open and climbed out of the car. “Good night, Esmerie.”

            “Good night, Louis.”

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