Rowan Levi is a high school student from California whose previous work has appeared in the Salmon Creek Journal, YAWP Journal, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. When not writing, they can be found catching up on their movie list, collecting Halloween decorations, and hanging out with the neighborhood raccoons.
There is a house on a cliff by the sea. It’s a washed-out, barely-there shade of blue, with a lopsided picket fence and a handful of flowers kept alive only through rain and the kindness of others.
In this house on a cliff by the sea, there is a girl. She lives alone. Her eyes are the faded grey color of a long-forgotten naval battle, her hair the buzzed-short style of a young cadet. A deep, rich brown, it’s the only part of her body that doesn’t appear to have been leached of all color. Her fingernails are brittle, her breaths are labored— but all of these qualities are, in fact, a relatively new development.
The house used to be filled with a soft, musical laughter, with long blond hair and the smell of freshly-baked cookies, with the figure of a tall, looming man whose eyes devoured all the light around them. The girl tries her best to replicate these memories, though they may be long gone, but all she can manage are vague substitutions: a blonde wig, slightly askew, burnt pancakes, caked-on makeup, and the general aura of pastel-tinted fragility. So it goes.
Beyond the house, there is a neighborhood, and there’s a boy from that neighborhood who comes to visit sometimes. He’s skinny and willowy like the girl, but able to hold himself up with just a bit more hope.
The boy often comes holding a bucket, silver and rusting on the edges. Before stepping inside, he uses this bucket to water the plant in her garden. The kindness of others. He opens the door, which is never locked.
She’s waiting for him in the kitchen, wig on her head, face freshly powdered, breakfast on the stove. The boy comes here every three days, watering the plants and allowing the girl to make him breakfast. It’s far from comfortable, but it’s a routine, and that’s what matters.
“Did you sleep?” he asks.
Wind blows through seashell-inlaid chimes, cold, clear, sweet, and the girl sways with it, but makes no sounds of her own.
The boy gives her a sad smile, “Yeah… I didn’t either. It’s okay.”
Still, she ignores him. The girl was once told not to discuss such personal things with guests in the home. Though this discussion was many years ago, she still attempts to abide by that promise. She often fails.
A single, meticulously-arranged place is set at the table, and the boy knows that it’s for him. He sits down. The first of the pancakes are set on his plate, and the boy is careful. The boy is careful, but he soon finds inevitability breathing down his neck— the inevitability that all delicately-constructed routines will eventually crack.
It happens. Sometimes you stumble. Sometimes your hands shake. Sometimes you collide with unseen things. In this case—
He knocks over a glass, and the crash is almost deafening. Bookended by silence, a ringing in the ears. The girl is quiet and still. One step backward. Two steps backward.
She clutches her stomach like a wounded animal and runs out of the room.
Somewhere else, a door slams. A distant scream. Then crying.
The boy closes his eyes and clutches the table so tightly that his knuckles turn white. He looks close to crying himself.
But then there’s another scream. Eyes wide and timid, he finally gets up and begins advancing towards the source of the noises. A layer of long-dead flowers and cracked cases of makeup covers the ground beneath his feet.
The interior of the house occupies an odd paradox: it is simultaneously empty and full. Full of things, lost things, broken things, forgotten things, and yet empty of everything else. There are several things that soon become broken things as the boy walks down the hallway.
Another scream, coming from the bathroom. Though he knows what is to come, has seen it many times before, he hesitates. But the girl screams again, words this time:
“No, I don’t want to, please, come back…”
He takes slow, halting steps forward until his nose is very nearly pressing up against the door. It isn’t locked this time, but he knocks anyway. Once, twice, three times. Another scream, and then gulping, breathy hiccups.
“No, don’t come in yet sweetheart, I’m not ready,” she sobs, “I know you don’t want to see me like this.”
She has said this many times before, even though they both know that the boy on the other side of the door is not the sweetheart she is referring to. The script is an old one, but she’ll throw it out when she’s ready. He won’t press her.
Then the bathroom goes quiet. The boy opens the door.
She’s sitting down on the floor, eyeshadow running, wig set slightly askew, rocking back and forth with her legs clutched to her chest.
“I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry…”
She’s looking at him, but then again, the boy knows that she isn’t. Because there’s a ghost in this house, in this room. And this boy, though he tries to be strong, buckles under the spirit’s influence just as much as she does. This is no white knight, though he may try to be.
Because he knows how it feels to be sitting crumpled on a cold bathroom floor, sitting with twin rivers on your cheeks and a hurricane in your heart.
The boy kneels down to her level, slow and practiced. He puts his hands on her shoulders, but they are soft, they are gentle, they are slight, and they have quivers of their own, a nonverbal reminder that the man she is speaking to is no longer here.
At the end of the day, the girl knows this. All is quiet.
Slowly, carefully, he helps her up, out of the room, and into the bed. Early-morning light crowns her lolling head, the struggle to hold her body weight now forfeit. She’ll try again tomorrow, and maybe then she’ll win.
“I didn’t sleep well,” she says, “I never do when he’s watching me.”
Sitting on the girl’s driftwood nightstand is a vase of pale yellow daylilies, alive and vibrant. The boy has never touched them.
There’s a screaming noise, but it’s faint, far away from this quiet, nestled bedroom. The teapot is ready. That’s all. He makes one cup and leaves it on the nightstand, next to the flowers.
Then the boy goes home.
There is another house on a cliff by the sea. The boy who lives there does not want to keep a garden, does not try to, but the plants grow anyway, vibrant and uncontrollable. A reminder of what once was, and a reminder of what could have been. Of freckled-on stardust, little girls with ferns braided into their hair, and other things that he would prefer not to think about.
So instead of thinking, the boy turns his back to the sea and walks inside. He ignores the ever-mounting piles of messages from old friends, dusts the windowsills, and washes the dishes, trying to scrub the identity out of his fingertips until they are bled raw and to the bone. Then finally, when the sun sets, he falls into a fitful sleep as monsters and men stand side by side over his bed.
The neighborhood grows quiet as others begin to do the same, each with their own distinct cadence.
Broken people, every last one of them.