Papers fluttered into the wind from Ava’s bag. She managed to catch two of them quick enough, but the other — a drawing she had been sketching on the bus of herself, a difficult moment of reflection — was caught in the heavy drift and disappeared into the gray sky. She looked down at the paper containing her new school schedule for Agatha College of Aberdeen, Massachusetts and shifted the other paper on top, which contained the address she needed:
1847 East Clove Rd. - Dahlila Thompson
Ava looked up from the paper to the shabby house peeking into view. Up a private dirt road, between the richly wooded terrain, an old New England colonial house with semi-new partitions stood there at the mouth of Lake Clove, its charcoal-gray exterior ghosted by fog.
Her new residence. For now.
Her long cherry hair hung just about completely loose and wild now from the clip she had it in, but she liked everything a little messy, uneven, or mismatched anyway. She pulled up her lacy corset top, straightened out the band of her red suspenders, and slipped on her worn flannel, preparing to ascend through the growing mist and up the small hill to the house. The old flannel had been her mother’s once. That, aside from a picture of them when she was little, was the only thing she had left of her. She gripped the fabric over her chest as the cold humidity grew.
The chaotic eastern winds turned, and she pushed through a rusty gate lopsided with weeds.
As she traveled up the unkempt path and the windows on top of the house came better into view, their warped reflections looked like a person was watching out the window. It was eerily similar to the way she had done for so many months this past year, starring out, trapped in her mind, a cage in which she dreaded to ever slip back into. But how do you find what’s lost, if you don’t know what’s missing? What do you tether to if you’ve never had an anchor? Are you forced to listen to a forgotten language from deep within and no longer without, closing the door to others? Forced to place the anchor deep inside, what will it take to come back up for air? Could the gurgled screams be heard? A small glimmer of light made from a wind over a branch showed the illusion in the window, and there was nothing watching, only her memories staring back at her, and she pushed them away. She stepped up to the landing, under a small roof, and knocked on the door.
After a minute, Ava heard nothing, so she knocked again. Still, there was no answer. She checked the doorknob, and it was unlocked. She stepped in.
Immediately, she was hit by a breeze from the lake coming down the hallway from the back of the house. A piece of wallpaper flapped loosely on the wall. A very old must smell lingered, twined with thick foliage, earth, and moisture. The wood floors creaked under the weight of her feet, her steps leaving little impressions in dust.
“Hello?” Ava called, stepping farther into the small foyer, her voice seeming to disappear into the earth-beaten house. “Dahlila?”
To her left, the foyer arched open into a dreary living room with rafters. Both the room and its belongings were as outdated as the house was old. The couch was beaten up and draped in dank, old blankets and pillows. There was an intimidating and weathered grandfather clock that reached almost to the ceiling, as if it watched over the room like an odd fellow. The fireplace was deep, wide, and dingy with a metal bar that swung in and out of the hearth; Ava suspected that was where cooking had been done when this house was originally built.
The house seemed almost extinct, yet with so many secrets still to share.
There was a car motor approaching the house, carrying laughter with it, and Ava looked out the living room window. It was Dahlila. Ava recognized her instantly from a video call they had where they’d finalized into the rental agreement. She had just pulled up in a red convertible with a girl who was laughing light heartedly.
Ava stepped outside to wait. As Dahlila straightened out her car, the other girl came to the porch, giving Ava an uncertain look as the girl bent to pick something up.
“Sorry,” the girl apologized. “I’m just getting my backpack. I was out collecting wildflowers for a project, and the woods here have so much plant life.”
Ava tilted her head to her with an arched brow, wondering why she was apologizing and wanting her to step away because she did not know her. This earned her an uncomfortable look. Ava looked back at Dahlila, and the other girl turned and walked down the path that led to the dirt road after tripping over a small rock.
Dahlila looked up at Ava, clearly recognizing her as well. With a smile and a wave, she skipped up onto the porch. Ava’s stomach tightened uneasily. Was she sure this is what she wanted to do?
Her hair, a halo of sunshine, was pulled back perfectly into a fluffy ponytail. Sweat lined her hairline and light blue t-shirt, and her feet were supported comfortably by a pair of hundred-dollar Nike sneakers. “Hi! Did you just get here?”
“Yeah. I let myself in — the door was unlocked.”
“Oh, good.” Her voice narrowed into a higher pitch, intentionally sweetening it. Ava cringed. “I was hoping you would if I couldn’t make it back in time. I’m so sorry about that — my dance class ran later than usual.”
Ava thought about asking her about it, but she didn’t. Instead, she only stood there staring back, leaving an awkward moment of silence as Ava registered her.
Finally, Dahlila stepped into the foyer, and Ava followed, taking off her flannel. Any chills from earlier were already dissipated from the heat growing from her body.
“Did you take a look around yet?” A quick, but noticeable, fleck of antipathy shined in Dahlila’s eyes when she turned and her gaze met down Ava, apparently finding something undesirable about her and her old clothes.
Ava easily ignored the reaction and plopped her flannel on her bags. “Started to.”
“I know it’s old,” Dahlila said, squishing her face together, and spun a tiny ring encrusted with diamonds on her pinkie finger; Ava already had its value estimated with a quick glance. “It’s only been updated a little here and there through the years and been in my dad’s family for generations. He left it to me in his will, it’s not too far from school, and I wanted a place to live outside my mother’s house, so it works.” She laughed. “But I have so much optimism for it.” Her ponytail bounced as her head turned to look around inspiringly.
“I bet you do.” Ava glanced away. “It does have character.”
“So, let me give you the tour.” Dahlila smiled enthusiastically, rocking on her toes, her kind brown eyes softening her facial features even further. She didn’t have any features that overtly stood out on their own, but the symmetry and fairness of her whole make was in its own pleasant to look at. For the first time, Ava completely understood the expression, ‘easy on the eyes’.
Ava was counting the seconds until she could get to her room, shut the door, and disappear. But she had the feeling that Dahlila needed to be a good welcome committee more than Ava needed to be alone…
Though, maybe not.
Ava looked from Dahlila’s bouncing toes up into her waiting eyes. “Where’s my room?”
“Oh. Umm.” Flustered, Dahlila waved her hands and turned spritely towards Ava’s bags, which only flustered her more. “Is this all you brought?” Her voice pitched annoyingly.
“Yeah,” Ava replied flatly.
“I know you said you were going to pack light, but wow.”
Foot in mouth, Dahlila. Now. Not everyone has easy access to the honey pot — don’t start, Ava.
“Well, either way, I made sure you had some furnishings just in case.” Dahlila grabbed her things and tackled the stairs.
Ava went to stop her — “Err. Ah — I got that…” But Dahlila was off, and Ava just looked after her flying up the stairs before following.
“It’s no big deal. Really!” she called back. “I want to make sure you get settled in as comfortably as possible on your first day here.”
I wouldn’t go with comfortable, Ava thought, coming off the stairs and following Dahlila into the room where her things were set them down. “I guess all that dance keeps you fit. Gotta stay young and beautiful forever, right?”
“I wouldn’t go with forever. I have a hard enough time thinking about keeping it up for sixty years.”
Ava shrugged her shoulders, swinging her arms, as if she was shaking off energy building — anxiety. “Eh, well, forever always gets cut short, anyway. Just as always is only always until it becomes almost-always. And almost-always becomes sometimes. Sometimes becomes maybe. And maybe — never. Nothing’s guaranteed, is it? Hey, but we always got today, right?”
Dahlila turned around into an odd little giggle, wiping her forehead. “Until almost.”
Ava almost smiled at that one. “You catch on quick.”
She began to feel an edge of frustration. Ava wasn’t ready to open up just yet and face the worst part of letting someone in your life — the moment they were gone, that very moment when your heart squeezed so tight it stopped beating because you needed them so bad, but you were alone, left dying inside like you were nothing to anyone — that was one of the worst feelings she’d ever felt. She could still feel the cold floor under her as she tightened in a fetal position, waiting for her mother in the empty house that used to be her home, so alone. No, she just wasn’t ready to go down that road again just yet.
Ava began herding Dahlila out and shutting the door.
“Just let me know if you need anything.” Just before it closed completely, Dahlila turned back into the door, and Ava tried not to roll her head around a hundred times and vomit pea soup at her. “I’m ordering pizza later. I hope you’re not on a diet.” Dahlila gave a wink, then the door was closed.
Ava’s body almost relaxed as she looked to the window to see it was near dusk, her first day almost done. She pulled up a chair to the window, watching outside in habit as the night lowered down over the trees and all the life around her, yet not feeling alive at all. Would she ever be able to breathe again?
Before she knew it, it was completely dark and a voice sprung her back from her far away place. Dahlila was standing in the doorway. “A family member?”
Ava looked down at the small picture of her mother, realizing she was holding it. Her face flushed with heat, because the truth was, she didn’t like to let herself mull over it much. Her mother had abandoned her when she was fourteen, and she was either alive or dead, and it didn’t actually matter anymore because it had already taken her enough years to accept the idea and the consequences of it. At nineteen now, Ava wouldn’t let it get to her. That was behind her. It had to be. The past had to go if she was going to have a new life, be a new person… find what was missing… where it had all gone wrong.
It was just that there were some moments when she couldn’t help but to linger there for a little while.
And now someone witnessing her doing it made it all the more real and all the more heavy, like her strength was quivering, and it made her agitated. She liked to hold onto her strength like a sledgehammer. She wanted to get up and slam the picture in Dahlila’s face and then hit her own head against the wall for leaving the door open when she went to the bathroom.
But instead, Ava put her head down for a moment and took a deep breath, got up, and slipped the picture into the closest drawer.
“Sorry,” Dahlila apologized. “I didn’t mean to pry. I just wanted you to know the pizza’s here.”
“It’s all right,” Ava said, grabbing her flannel. “Yes, it’s my mother.” She smiled a fake smile, but the pretty damned good fake, the kind that didn’t matter if it was fake or not, because it had a point — and the point was to forget about it. “How ‘bout that pizza?”
Dahlila looked past Ava like she had just swallowed a sourball.
They sat for a little while in uncomfortable silence as they chewed through their slices in the rustic kitchen, spotted with shiny new appliances. The only light was from the low glow from the kitchen hood above the stove. Ava caught her eye on the coffee maker on the counter.
It was a Technivorm Moccamaster in copper. They were said to make delicious coffee, brew fast, and had a great wave in popularity because of their innovative modern design. Ava had came across those before and knew they were about $350, and she could easily get $200 for it… That was a job hazard, having an experienced eye always open for what she could get. And Dahlila could easily replace it in an instant. As well as that diamond ring on her finger. If Ava wanted to, she could take it off the girl in her sleep. Hell, if she really wanted to, she could take it off the girl right here, right now. Luckily though, she didn’t want to terrorize her just because she could; cold heart or not, somehow Ava had still clung to some semblance of a moral code, skeletal remains of what was, she supposed.
“What was it that brought you here, exactly?” Dahlila asked, breaking the thick silence. Ava looked up at her and stopped eating; Dahlila shifted uncomfortably on her chair and cleared her throat. “I mean, I know you found me by my ad and recognized my name from the student email list for our anthropology class… but what brought you to Aberdeen?”
Ava looked sullenly away at the napkin and wiped her hands, trying to figure out how to force herself to talk to her. “Well, I wanted to start over — and I guess you can say that I was drawn to this town.” She wasn’t going to mention that she had a mental breakdown a year ago, and she was trying to change her life to avoid it ever happening again. She also wasn’t going to mention the little voice that called to her and trailed in the wind, which had brought her here.
Ava’s sharp hazel eyes came back up to Dahlila, who was trying to form her lips into a smile, but the discomfort in her features was apparently harder for her to wipe away into empty pleasantry.
“You wanted to start over at nineteen?” Dahlila clarified.
Ava took in a deep slow breath while still staring at Dahlila, and Dahlila’s face began morphing into that sourball face again. A new beginning wouldn’t be the first time for Ava, and probably wouldn’t be the last. She’d left everything and everyone behind and knew she should care that she had, just like she should care about the nice girl in front of her who she made uncomfortable — but she simply didn’t.
And Ava’s intuition had told her a while ago that this girl was trying to start over as well; she was just either too ignorant at the moment, too shallow, or too scared to admit it to herself. But that wasn’t Ava’s problem.
Then something caught her eye. “What’s in there?” There was light catching on an object just through a door off the kitchen, and she saw it as an easy conversation changer. God knew she didn’t want to ruin this before it could even begin.
“Oh.” Dahlila seemed relieved to change the conversation too, and got up eagerly to show her.
Though it seemed like they were going to walk down the stairs into a garage because there was a discolored brick wall and the floor was cement, it was actually something else, something quite charming, actually. It was so dim and piled with boxes that it was difficult to make out at first, but as they ventured farther to the center and right, it began to rain, pulling her attention above, and she could see that part of the room transfigured into a semi-oval conservatory. Its walls and ceiling were all windows with thin tarnished black metal holding them all together. It nearly pulled an awed smile from her.
The glass roof, that was different from the regular portion of the room, reached up almost two floors high. Water cascaded gently down its surface, glistening through the cracks between the sheets hung up over the walls, meant to smother everything out.
Ava thought immediately of how it’d be in there if it were cleaned out. She could set up a station to draw, paint, and meditate — be in her own element, alone and safe. The space was being wasted now.
“There’s a glass door back here that leads you out into the side backyard and English garden,” Dahlila explained, pushing boxes, trying to make her way through. “I like to use the yard behind the sitting room though; it’s more contemporary.” Her voice strained more as she went, until she turned around quickly, giggling. “You know what — how about we do that another day? I hate this room.”
Ava agreed and cleaned up her place at the kitchen table, quietly heading upstairs directly after. Before she had reached the top of the stairs, she heard Dahlila sigh. It fell away into one of the many ruined boxes in the back of her mind that she’d lost the combination to.
Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train played on her iPod as she began pulling out everything she’d packed as if she was pulling tissue out of a box just for the sake of emptying it. By the time she was done, her things were all over the place. She put a different shoelace in one of her boots, switched the earring in her right ear, which was laden with piercings all the way up, for a long dagger, keeping a different small earring in her left ear, and pulled out her sketchpads and drawing utensils to see what she had left. For a while, she sat working on fixing her long skirt for tomorrow’s first day of classes that she realized was coming apart. It was layered with different black fabrics, slightly shorter in the front, lofty and comfortable. She’d made it herself. Threw that over a chair afterwards with a black-and-white-striped long sleeve shirt that came down on the shoulders, a corset to go over that, and her red suspenders.
When all was done at last, Ava lay in bed, sifting through the day’s events and preparing herself for what she might have to face the next day. Her hand followed where Jason would usually lie. She was used to him there now. But it didn’t matter.
She hadn’t even realized how far it’d gone, just how little she felt. Sometimes you get so used to something that you forget how it had been before. And sometimes you get a rude awakening. Well, she had a violent awakening, and now she was asking — Who am I? Where do I belong? Where was the person who I tried so hard to protect?
Was there a way back to humanity? Would the pain be too much? Would it be worth it?
Ava thought it would be. It would be worth everything.
She was a starved soul with a heart big enough for two.
The drawing she had been sketching on the bus came to mind then, and she wished she hadn’t lost it. It was the first one she’d done of herself, sketching it from the bus window’s reflection, raindrops and all. To her, it reflected a person who was searching for a home… for far too many years.
As her mind drifted away, she imagined herself as that drawing: taken high in the wind, this way and that way across town, to finally float down from the sky along with the setting sun, just to find itself on a high ledge about to fall over, and then snatched up by fingers coming out into the night.
Ava finally closed her eyes and fell away somewhere.
Some time between the late of the night and the early hours of day, before the rise of the sun, Ava woke so uncomfortable to her surroundings that she checked for her Bowie knife under her pillow, looked out the window, and out into the hall at least three times before feeling comfortable enough in bed again. This was normal. She would adjust soon. If you could call it that.
As she sat there, waiting for the edge in her nerves to settle, she knew it was pointless to try to sleep again with the day looming over her, and finally removed herself from the bed to get the day over with.
Ava paused before a long oval mirror to look at herself, trying to admire what she saw. This was a daily battle. Tired eyes glistened back. She was surprised to see the fire mounting her irises the way her mother’s had — she hadn’t realized that had begun to develop. Her hair had been dyed for so long it was hard to remember her exact natural hair color anymore, only that it was some shade of brown and looked dark in the roots… It took too much to remember back.
She’d always had an athletic body type: petite breasts, hard stomach, and long, lean legs. And she’d always felt strong and fast. Her skin was soft but patched with memories of a hard-lived life. She wrapped her arms around her chest, her fingers reaching to the newest scars from an incident last year, which had grown over her tattoos — slash marks now went through the moon inked on her back shoulder. They were only a tiny fraction of the scars she had. That had to be at least a small testament to her strength. Yet, the worst scars were the ones that can’t be seen.
Her breath stilled as she turned from the mirror and looked down at the scar on her forefinger, one she’d purposely made with a hot knife in a moment of blind frustration. An X. After it had healed, it was tattooed over with a small defined x to never forget. Now a little copper ring with a small elegant rose was always worn below it. Originally, the injury was to comprehend the pain she felt on the inside but could not see on the outside, with a promise to overcome it. Somewhere, it had swallowed her into nothing instead. Now it was a reminder of the moment she stopped feeling her heart completely. The last she could give and get taken.
Agatha College was small compared to what she had thought, and quaint, and sort of… personable. It was very old like everything else in town, and in a way felt private, like they shared some common inheritance the rest of the world didn’t, the way small towns share tragedies and secrets and experiences. The air was thick with it. Unpleasantly thick.
She’d arrived so early, there was time for her to find a sitting spot in a hallway corner next to a vending machine where she got a feel for the people walking back and forth and tried to acclimate herself to this new world, new kind of people. Unfortunately, she felt more like she’d just crawled out from a rock for the first time in years, or from some cave like the creature from The Lord of the Rings, and everything was bright and alien to her. But she rubbed the little rose on her finger and headed for class anyway, ready to go for it.
Ava found her first class, Psychology 101, upstairs and on the other side of the building. When she took a seat in the back corner of the room — so no one could come up behind her unexpectedly — she pulled out the school’s map to figure out where any lockers were and where she should have one. Apparently, most people didn’t use them, but that just meant the pick of the litter was hers.
Excited students shuffled into class and settled in quietly to be taken under the wings of the professor for an hour, eyes wide and full of an eagerness that no amount of unsureness of the future could smother just yet. They still smelled new.
Ava had forgotten how uncomfortable it was in class, the restlessness of being in the command of another that you could scarcely trust, rules and guidelines to follow that were not of her making, and then the uncomfortable disengagement from the whole thing. It took so much for her not to simply get up and walk out. Her eyes were met with a sharp stare from Professor Green when she hadn’t bothered to follow along in the overview pamphlet he handed out. It was hard to take him too seriously though, with his spiky neon-yellow hair, a big bald spot at the front of his head, and a hilarious — sometimes uncomfortable — droll sense of humor.
She had also met the pretty violet eyes of a girl next to her, who seemed too aware of Ava. Ava almost felt claustrophobic under their attention and wasn’t sure if that little square room was going to hold her much longer. This is just day one, she told herself, get it together.
“I like your small widow’s peak,” the girl whispered, smiled, and looked back receptively at the professor. Ava wasn’t sure whether to thank her.
He was now going on about statistics: students who sat in the back of the classrooms were less likely to finish the course, especially those who sat in the back corners — the focus of the entire class shifted momentarily to Ava and the person in the other back corner. That felt a little too antagonistic for her, but still, she couldn’t help but to wonder if it would be more normal if she moved closer to the front. Her eyes glared back at him when she also wondered if he only said that to manipulate them into being more proactive; surely the kids in the back wanted to be less involved; that was definitely true for her, and she definitely now wanted to prove him wrong. Very sly indeed, Professor Green.
As the psychology class ended, Professor Green said something quite ominous to leave them with, and Ava knew then that this town was going to be something else. “Remember, it’s getting dark sooner and longer now, so tread carefully in the dark.”
She gave him a lingering look when she couldn’t quite grasp him, and because of that, his little eyes latched onto her as she left, his neck never turning an inch, but his eyes following her all the way out the door.
“The fuck?” she said under her breath and turned into the hallway.
The school crowd bustled innocently and energetically past her to its next classes, ready for the hustle to make a mark in life, and she couldn’t help gawking at all these busy little bright things.
Next thing Ava knew, she was running into Dahlila outside their two o’clock anthropology class. A surprising wave of relief washed over her when Ava realized it was her. And then guilt — for being human probably.
“Ava!” Dahlila’s tone was enthusiastic as usual. “There you are!”
Dahlila had traded in her informal clothes for an elegant cream sweater, its softness so rich it almost seemed to shine beneath the fabric, a pair of tapered maroon pants, and subtle heels. There was a delicate gold necklace around her neck with a heart, pearl earrings, and a shiny gold minimalist watch on white leather. Her diamond pinkie ring frosted the whole of the outfit, and her vibrant yellow hair lay silkily in even curls around her shoulders. She looked stunningly perfect. A little too perfect for Ava’s taste, but beautiful nonetheless.
The two of them side by side truly looked like odd bedfellows.
“I was looking for you,” Dahlila said and turned to a guy standing to her side who looked as stunningly good looking and put together as she did. “This is Ava, the roommate I’ve been telling you about.” His ice blue eyes were watchful, his expression steady. He had neatly combed back hair, black as oil, and a crisp button-down shirt that was snug on his stocky form. “This is my friend, Danny Giacometti.”
“Hey.” He flashed his brilliant teeth perfunctorily, same as his words, and winked. “Nice to meetcha.”
Ava smiled loosely, not sure what to think about that one, and not feeling very comfortable standing amidst them. She glanced into the classroom; the professor was standing near the door, watching students enter the classroom with an unnervingly distant gaze. Her striking white and black hair fell out of her bun over her youthful face. Ava wondered if that was how she, herself, appeared to other people sometimes. She looked away.
“Me and Danny have been friends forever,” Dahlila was still going on.
“Something like that.” His voice smoothed out with a cool tone and a light Italian accent, his eyes still carefully on Ava.
Dahlila leaned into Ava’s ear to whisper, a rich untouched smell lofting from her. “He can be a real asshole sometimes, but he’s a good guy.” Danny eyed them suspiciously, and Dahlila winked at her.
Another wink. Ava was starting to suspect she’d see a lot more of those from them. And then frantically, her eyes wanted to go on a blinking binge, and she was just about making the stink face to avoid it.
Danny side-glared Dahlila. “Talk your junk. Don’t forget I know all your secrets.”
“And I know all of your weaknesses.” She chuckled in a way that seemed outside of her character, and Danny wasn’t at all looking at Ava anymore.
Ava was all of a sudden curious. “You said you guys were only friends?”
He didn’t look interested in responding to that, but Dahlila clarified it immediately. “Yes, always.”
“Danny!” a gawky voice called from down the hall. “Hey, Danny!”
A guy, to her quiet disbelief, was tripping and pushing through the crowd to get to them, as if he couldn’t get through fast enough. “Hey, guys.” He was panting and fixing down his shirt as he finally made it over, unperturbed, as if that was the ‘norm’ for him.
He had bright brown eyes and a wide, toothy grin. His just-settling attention was caught in a split-second by someone walking by — he snatched their hat, putting it on his own head backwards, and looked back into their group as if he had been part of the conversation the entire time.
“What the hell, Shane?” the person yelled, snatching their hat back, and sauntered off.
“What the hell?” Shane retorted like he was genuinely wounded. “I was gonna give it back.” He turned back feigning agitation and moped, but his eyes quickly opened up out of those feelings, and after going around, went in for a landing on Ava. “Oh. Hey. I’m Shane.” He put out his hand. “Stonebrooke. Shane Stonebrooke.” He grinned, suggesting that he was smooth, anything but the dork she saw before her.
“Ava.” She shook his hand cautiously. He was dizzying, like a bouncing goofy ball of light. “Dahlila’s roommate.” His soft brown hair was running amuck on his head and his resting eyes, which slanted down the slightest, were a shape that should have made them almost sad-looking, but it was a chaotic joy they held inside instead.
“Yeah…” His finger pointed and nearly touched her as he nodded seriously; Ava would have probably snapped her teeth over it if it did; part of her was waiting for it. He pulled his finger back in though, probably realizing that. “That’s right. I think I heard her mention you.”
“Shane’s my idiot cousin.” Danny’s lips tightened into a tired mock of a smile, slapping his hand on Shane’s chest, who was taller but lankier than him, and rocked the boy unsteady; Shane’s cheek’s colored. “And don’t let him fool you, he saw you in the hall earlier and went fuckin’ bananas.”
Shane fixed his pants, which were loose fitted on his hips, and grabbed onto his baggy shirt that had a phrase on it: Everyone tells me to follow my dreams, so I’m going back to bed. He was obviously trying to find something to deflect with, but after a moment, all that came out was, “Hea. Hea.” He put one hand in his pocket, the other one held his pained abdomen, and his focus didn’t know where it wanted to go, until all their focus was forced suddenly onto a guy walking past them to her and Dahlila’s classroom.
“STONERBROKE,” the guy hollered, and Ava’s energy went into the black. Shane’s shoulders lowered briefly. The guy rolled by with a glaringly smug look on his face, followed by a succession of people with the same snobbish traits, and soon Ava saw what life it was that Dahlila was trying to start over from. “Crawl back into the trash where you belong.” His voice deepened into an ugly sneer.
His gray eyes stopped at Ava and measured her appearance as if it failed in comparison to his neat ostentation. He rolled up his cashmere sleeves to show off his Rolex watch and tattoos. The caramel highlights in his volumized hair were caught by the light, which was combed sleekly to the side. She followed his petty gaze with placidity. Then he gave a taunting look to everyone else and shook his head with contempt at Danny before going into the classroom. The rest of his clique followed close behind him after flashing their group similar looks, the girls sending spiteful and petty expressions to Dahlila specifically.
The pretension stung Ava’s nostrils to a flare.
Dahlila leaned into Ava. “They used to be our friends. the Elite squad…” Dahlila sighed, watching them go into the room. “But now we’re the outcasts, I guess… Just like Shane.” Dahlila’s eyes raised to him and then slowly away into thought.
“You’re better off.” Ava turned from the door.
“I suppose so.” Dahlila turned with her with a soft gleam in her eye.
Shane turned back after waving at ‘the Elite’ mockingly and started goofing off like nothing had happened. When he laughed, his eyes squished up into precious little, half moons, and his smile became toothier and was sweetened by his dimples. He switched mid-sentence to Ava after his mind finally caught up to his mouth. “Do you eat around here?”
Danny stopped him before he could go any further, putting his arm around him to tame him. “Don’t mind my cousin. Sometimes his head spins.” After a quick tousle of Shane’s hair, he pulled him the other way.
“He’s something else,” Ava commented to no one and went to turn into class.
Dahlila laughed, and Shane’s mouth dropped open. “Did you hear that? She said I’m something.” Ava stopped to look at him again.
“Take that how you want it.” Danny pulled Shane by his shirt. “We gotta go.”
“Later, alligator.” Shane smiled at Ava woozily.
“After while, crocodile,” she shot back to him to give the boy something to chew on.
He turned his head back around in a quirky way to look at her again as he was pulled away, his mouth nearly drooling, and then turned around to hit Danny.
From a distance, she could hear Shane, “Why’d you let me make a fool of myself, man?”
“You always do, dude.”
As they turned into the classroom, she caught a bulletin board that had a variety of papers pinned to it. It was over-filled with missing person’s posters, mostly missing teenagers, papers so old they were tinged yellow. New papers over lapped older ones of the same kids, probably pinned year after year by their parents, marking the spot like a graveyard marker every year, even though they’d really given up hope… Losing hope was the worst thing a person could lose… Her stomach turned. What happened to all of them?
After the last class, Ava stopped at her locker to pick up her things, feeling almost satisfied that she’d made it through the day. On the inside of the locker door, she hung up a paper she had scribbled on during her philosophy class that said — fuck yeah. Then she shut the door and headed for the exit.
Her satisfaction faded quickly as she reached the outside steps though. In the car bend, just in front of the college, Dahlila was sitting there waiting in her convertible, Lady Gaga blasting from the speakers.
“Hey! Want a ride?” she hollered over at Ava the second she saw her, eyes and hair shining softly in the sun.
Ava contemplated, while having to admire Dahlila’s determination. Her persistence actually reminded Ava a little of her old friend, Keya, in which a special friendship had bloomed from once.
“You getting in or what?” Dahlila signaled to the other seat with a hopeful grin.
“What the hell, why not?” She thudded down the stairs, threw her things in the back seat, and jumped in.
Dahlila’s grin turned into a blinding smile. “Alright! We’re going for a ride! Then we have to stop home and get ready for tonight.”
Ava arched a brow. “What’s tonight?”
“You’ll see.” She giggled loudly and skidded off with Ava trying not to glare at her.
Ava sat on a bench down at the Brewer Subway Station with Dahlila, Shane, and Danny — waiting.
What they were waiting for, she didn’t know. Obviously, she’d assumed they were there to get on the subway train, but there they sat there quiet, jittery, and not budging from their secrecy, while each train had gone by. They stood up, looking around conspicuously, and she followed suit, then they would sit down again. Repeatedly. It was getting bizarre, and her mind was playing in unwelcome spaces.
“All right. That’s it.” Ava stood. “I don’t like not fucking knowing what I’m getting into. What are we doing here? Picking up drugs? Just tell me.”
Danny appeared offended as he eyed her down. “Why, you itching for a hit?”
Ava felt a tremor in her hand, and it was for a hit all right, but not for drugs. “Are you?”
All night so far, the two of them had caught on each other’s steel hooks. But this time, even though Danny comprehended that she threatened to hit him, his supercilious armor fell, and his neck muscles relaxed as he fell back into a soft chuckle and looked away.
Dahlila’s eyes were scrunched up in fake amusement, trying to keep tension lifted.
“Hea. Hea. No,” Shane interrupted to finally come clean. “We have to wait until the entire platform is cleared of any witnesses.”
He looked at Ava and began laughing over her expression. She blinked, unamused. They seemed to be in high spirits, but she wasn’t sure if she should be or not yet.
Shane added, “When it’s clear, we’re going down on the train tracks.”
Ava’s face froze — she wasn’t sure what face she was making this time, but she was interested now. Of all the places she’d explored before, she’d never gone into the tunnels, and she’d done a lot of daring things in her life — insanely reckless even. She replied simply, “Okay.”
Shane shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.” He stretched his lips from ear to ear, turning to Danny. “Ha. Hea.” His eye twitched. It wasn’t very clear whether he was excited or actually masking fear.
Finally, they looked up, saw the platform was clear of any people, and jumped up. Ava followed suit accordingly, like someone watching a person’s dance steps for the first time.
“Okay. Let’s go!” Danny hollered under his breath, ordering everyone to follow.
They hustled in tandem up a narrow pathway for the workers. There was a ladder at the end to climb down onto the tracks. She had been hoping they were going to just jump in. Danny stopped and turned to Ava in a serious tone — “Watch my steps. Don’t step on the third rail; it’s live. And don’t put your foot between rails; they switch. Just follow my path until I tell you you’re good, and you’ll be fine. Alright?”
One last panicked glance back at the platform to make sure they weren’t seen, and everyone dropped down the ladder. Staying close to the side, they hurried down the tunnel, hiding in small concave areas in the wall whenever a train passed. Then hurried again for about 200 feet. When they had to start crossing over the tracks, Danny reminded them of what he’d said and pointed out the third rail. They crossed it, went a bit farther down, and then crossed one again, bringing them to a tunnel for an old abandoned subway platform that was brightly lit.
“All right,” Danny said, going up the stairs to the platform and pausing a moment so they could take a break. “You’re good now.”
His voice combined with the sound of their movements and echoed off the walls, against all of the dead silence, shooting all their ebullience back at them. There was no other sign of life except for a sudden train passing on the other tracks, piercing through the quiet like a screeching siren.
The ceiling and its four golden archways shined in marbled brick, dulled by dust and cobwebs in the corners. The light was so bright after being in the dark that it was like they had passed into a ghostly dream of a different era. They looked at each other and around at the space with exhilarated eyes and panting breathes.
Shane was bent over trying to catch his breath as Dahlila fixed her backpack, completely focused. She and Danny had changed into sports gear. Ava and Shane hadn’t bothered to change at all, but she was already wearing perfect boots for this journey. Ava looked at Danny under the light, and it was the first time she caught a raw emotion from his usual guarded figure. He was brisk with eagerness to lead them properly. She wondered if he had been a captain of something in high school.
Danny signaled for them to follow him down the stairs on the other side and into the abandoned tracks, into the true dark tunnels. “This track is dead. Just don’t trip.”
Dahlila handed everyone a bag with a flashlight, candles, and water. They were wiping their faces while looking around, the cold damp air nipping at their skin, dense with must and dirt. As the smell grew thicker, the further removed they felt from where they’d come from. The only sound was their footsteps knocking at the walls and their heaving breaths, which disappeared as well after they slowed.
The farther they went, the darker it became, and the more they flashed their lights haphazardly. They found random objects littered in their path: beat-down shoes, lost baby dolls, and even clocks. Water dripped hollowly into puddles, which they tried to avoid, with little luck from Shane. “Fuck!” they’d hear from the dark after a splash, followed by non-sensible yammering and more swearing. A swarm of bats came fluttering out past them, and for a moment, the tunnel ruptured with the noises of flapping wings, quick shuffling feet, shocked gasping, and a scream that sounded like one long high-pitched wail of a little girl, which was Shane and his life passing before his eyes. The silence then settled thick around them again.
“What is this place?” Ava’s voice came out like a dreamy melody in the echoing cave as they came to a large turn, and their flashlights glared up at an unexpected over-growth of plant life. A broken part of the ceiling that soared above allowed the slimmest skylight through, but it was too far away to see much of it. A massive amount of foliage was hanging from it, like a jungle waterfall, flowing down to the ground.
“People call it Lithium,” Dahlila said.
“Why?” Ava was still gawking.
“I don’t know. This place isn’t really our scene.” She stayed focused ahead as she talked. “Well… at least it wasn’t. Who knows anymore what my scene is. Maybe it is.” The sound that came from Danny then was so quiet Ava almost missed the frustrated moan rumble in his throat as Dahlila continued, “Shane thought it would impress you.”
Ava shined her flashlight on Shane; he looked sheepish. “And you’re the one doing all the complaining.”
“I have to complain. That’s how I make sure our heads are on the right track.”
“And are they?”
“I’m not sure. Does this look right to you?” He shined his light on a crib.
Actually, that didn’t seem weird to Ava. A lot of homeless people probably came into the tunnels. And homeless people were a deep reality to her since she had been left homeless and scraping by after her mother flew the coop.
All Shane’s words sped into one as he continued, and Ava let it go into background noise. “So you guys are as new to this as I am.”
“We’re not new,” Dahlila corrected. “We only choose not to go. But we came a cross a secret email invitation sent out to select people for the first day of school celebration, and other than weekends, Mondays are usually the go-to for the people here. So we figured we’d celebrate for a change. I mean, it’s been awhile since we had anything worthy of celebrating, and we all wanted to show you a good time, being new to town and all.”
Danny cleared his throat. He didn’t care to welcome her to town, is what that meant. Ava watched him tap Dahlila’s arm, and Dahlila dodged a puddle just in time. But he did care about something.
“It’s like a party underground,” Shane told Ava. “You’ll see when we get there.”
“It is a party underground, dip-shit,” Danny barked from his silence. “We’re about seventy feet below ground, especially down there.”
“Holy shit,” was murmured, and they all looked up, realizing how deep below the streets they were. The path had only inclined down ever so slightly as they went, but after awhile it made a big difference.
A small glow of light flickered through the dark. They followed it. Their heartbeats grew faster. The light multiplied from candles set about, leading them off the tracks onto a concrete foundation, which was a long narrow walkway littered with more candles and graffiti. A few people were scattered about leisurely, staring detachedly as they walked by. A kind of quiet hunger ebbed in their gaze. A rising drumming noise vibrated the small space.
The right side of the pathway opened to dark rectangular openings, not unlike doorways. Danny slipped inside one and so did they. Inside were rows of beams that seemed to go on forever, appearing vast in the deep dark, until they turned and saw another opening, and there was a glimmer of light illuminating kicked-up dust from the dirt floor. It shimmered richly with lustful red light, slipping brighter into their darkness, luring them towards it.
They slipped through the opening, and came out as if coming out on the other side of the universe. The pressure, the color, and the movement from dance hit Ava like a sudden wave from acid, popping vibrancy through her senses.
Before them was a gigantic, cavernous space lit with thousands of candles. Strobe lights went off in corners. Colored lights highlighted art drawn on walls and the abstract art exhibits presented about sporadically. Changing lights shone down over the people dancing in the middle. In the very center of that was an old, elegant spiral staircase going nowhere, reminding Ava of a stairway to heaven, where people never quite made it all the way to its door. People lay on its stairs careless to the chaos below them, careless in a way when a person’s desires were well fed and fears unnecessary. Similar people had passed them with listless reception and lay about the place with lethargic satisfaction. It was so seductive in some strange way.
It was a subterranean world of color so vibrant under dark pigment it was almost electric, and dangerous. Its inhabitants strutted by in over-stylized outfits, some without many clothes at all, some only in full body paint. There were masks: masquerade masks, Greek theater masks, homemade masks. They wore wigs and patchwork makeup. A piece of clothing from every era was found throughout them. There was no rhyme or reason to it. No limits. No rules.
The four of them stood in awe for a moment at its mouth, before making their way down an inconsistent stairway that was carved from the rock, submerging themselves in a depth of otherness.
People sat watchful in large cubbyholes high up, hanging their feet from the ledge. Their eyes glowed sharp from the transgressive atmosphere as Ava and the others passed. Candle wax melted down everywhere: the walls, the fallen beams on the sides, in the hands of people trailing by.
At one end, huge winding cement stairs led up almost three stories to a platform looking out over the crowd. Gigantic velvet curtains hung, formidable, on its sides. It was chained closed like a VIP area, probably for the person for the gathering. One guy stood up there watching; he was probably that person. His long, platinum hair and shirtless body stood stark against the red lighting behind him as if he was a scene himself.
Shane pulled a small bottle of whiskey out of his pants and waved it, smiling broadly. Ava rolled her eyes and continued her assault on the sights. Her body began swaying softy to the music.
There were performers on a small platform. Drummers manifested melancholic vibrations and echoes against the cold, rocky earth that surrounded them all. A singer stared far off into the distance as her haunting voice emptied through the sultry air. Next to a floor candelabra, a violinist stroked the sweat-misted air as her bow drew pain and beauty from the strings.
The place was infused with life, though she felt in her bones that it was lined with a surreptitious darkness, deeper than what she understood, woven with an intricate edge of morbidity; it stung and it pleased. She felt closer to belonging down there than anywhere else since she’s been in town, but this place reminded her of when there was no limit she wouldn’t reach to get to freedom. Including death. Yeah, a thing called freedom… something she had always been reaching her fingers to the sky for, reaching her fingers to the sky like she was doing right now as she moved to the sounds around her…
A person picked up an electric guitar on stage and strummed his fingers with declaration. The sudden metallic sound waved through the atmosphere and charged Ava’s nerve endings.
Right at that moment, something caught her eye in her peripheral vision, and her attention was taken completely from herself and placed consummately into something else, as if for a second of bliss she had stopped existing. Ava stopped moving.
Off to the side where a set of white lights went off, a figure with two large wings edged distinctly out of the darkness, standing higher than everyone else in the crowd on some kind of pedestal. She turned her head to it as a different set of red lights went off behind it, highlighting his profile: the outline of the feathery wings, dark wavy curls on top of an undercut, forehead, eyes, and nose, and stance, everything guarded with shadows.
Her heartbeat slowed as she unknowingly took him in. Her breathing, shallow, was lost from her lips into the growing quietness around her. The sounds seemed to cease for that long second. She pulled her gaze away, back to their group, and tried to catch what they were talking about. Only then did Ava realize, to her surprise, the two girls from the Elite had joined them, Liz and Trish, which she had seen enough of in class.
Only, she couldn’t focus enough to figure out what they were talking about. Her sight drifted back.
He moved — parting from the divinity of the wings, and she could see he had been standing in front of an angel statue. And she could see like a shimmer of gold that he was breathtakingly attractive, so much that her gut twisted at the sight of him, even as she fought to give no mind or body to it. He was tall, dark haired, dark eyed, and divine, and gave off an intimidating air, which especially flooded her gut with a confusing sensation. This experience was so far out of her ballpark.
The statue showed the graffiti over it now: its reality… And she wondered, what was his reality?
She would have turned away again, but her eyes stayed helplessly with him after he jumped down. There was something about him that stood out from the rest. A strangeness amongst even the strange. Apparently, Ava wasn’t the only one whose attention had been caught by him either; she noticed the faces of girls and guys alike biting their lips as his eyes passed over them unseeingly … His gaze passed over Ava’s like she was just another face in the crowd, holding no interest for her.
Her blood pressure spiked shamefully, and she looked back at Dahlila and Shane, who were watching her a little too carefully.
“He looks like baaaaad news,” Dahlila assured her with Shane shaking his head in wholehearted agreement.
Ava glared, feeling irrationally insulted. “And do I look like good news?”
“No. You look like good, bad news,” Shane joked nervously.
“Bet you a hundred to one, he’s a creep,” Danny chimed in. “But hey, to each their own.”
Dahlila smacked him in the gut, whipping a bark from him. Liz and Trish were now on either side of him. What were they doing there, Ava was wondering again.
“What do you want?” Danny had groaned when they had found them, Ava remembered in retrospect. “Oh. Don’t be like that,” Trish said. “We came to see you,” Liz finished, squeezing herself between him and Dahlila. “I don’t think Jordan will be happy when he finds out your hanging with outcasts like us,” he said sarcastically. “What Jordan doesn’t know,” Liz said playfully. “Won’t hurt him,” Trish had finished.
Or Jordan sent them to play. Something about them didn’t quite sit right to Ava. And she hadn’t forgotten about the ugly looks they had sent Dahlila earlier.
Liz and Trish were almost identical, with big breasts pushed into the tiniest shirts, eighty-dollar eyelashes, same hair color and style, and princess personalities. The only difference was in their skin tones: white porcelain and smooth ebony. Posh twins. And they both were vying for Danny’s attention, exposing his playboy streak as he soaked up their pawing. The only creep Ava saw at the moment was him.
“Got your hand deep enough in the candy jar there, boy? Careful on the jawbreakers; they’re fake.” Ava winked at Danny and his face fell flat and their cheeks puffed. She didn’t really care about that one way or another — but they did, and that was the point.
When her attention turned from them, her eyes landed right back on the angel statue guy before realizing it, a curiosity beginning to burn inside like a warm glowing ember.
Ava watched him walk away, his clothes dusted with dirt and torn in places from either adventure or danger or chaos: a fitting black t-shirt, black jeans with the perfect amount of bagginess, and a sexy, sluggish wiggle of a hip. He walked strong in the shoulders, but he also had a unique bob of the neck and body as he moved.
This fixation disturbed her, and she finally forced her attention away. Then he was gone, just another body in the crowd.
Ava looked back at the faces she was with and then around distantly, trying to comprehend what she was feeling. It was like a soft undulating wave underneath the surface that set all her thoughts unsteady. For a second, she was almost mesmerized by the feeling. Taken over. She didn’t like that loss of control either.
As Liz slipped her hand on Danny’s arm, Ava finally realized that she was talking about asking Jordan to pull his strings to get Professor Putnik, their anthropology instructor, axed because she didn’t like her. “I’ll tell you one thing, never trust what a woman says whose eyebrows aren’t on point.”
Dahlila seemed unaware that she was watching their hands on Danny.
“You know, you can just drop the class,” Shane advised.
They ignored him and said something about Professor Green and his hair dye. It was a tedious conversation to stay with.
“Oh, come on, Liz,” Shane laughed. “You know you’d let Professor Green color it for you for a C.” He made a spanking gesture, and Dahlila smacked his hand in disgust. “What?” He looked to Ava for help, and she looked away. “Ruuuuudde.” He rolled his lips and dropped his hands.
Liz looked up at Danny, tightening her arm around his, and purred. “You should pick up the class, Danny. We’re all in there, except you.”
“Uh…” Shane raised his hand. “I’m not in there, either.”
“Well…” she scoffed with her shoulder, looking away from him like he smelled, and continued with a dry, condescending voice as she waved her ridiculously long fingernails. “It’ll be just like old times.”
“Liz, I think we both know nothing can go back to the way things were. Why are you on this shit now, anyway? You haven’t breathed a decent word to us for a year.” Danny shook his shoulders, becoming tepid from her null derision finally.
“I guess it’s because it looks like you guys are out again and making new friends.” Her eyes glanced at Ava. “And I’m getting jealous.” She battered her eyes playfully, and of course, Danny wasn’t pushing her off his arm.
“What the fuck?” Shane looked at them disgruntled.
“Shut your mouth, Shane,” Danny warned tiredly.
“Fine. But you know you don’t actually like those shit heads. It took you long enough to realize it last time, and they tossed you like a flying turd.” Shane turned to go disappear somewhere else. “Don’t gripe to me about it later when they flush you down a toilet.”
“Go run your dumb ass mouth off to someone else,” Danny hollered back at him.
Dahlila let out a long breath without realizing it, Danny looked at her irritably and let one out himself, and Ava turned away to get away from all of them for a bit.
“I’m going for a walk,” she told the air curtly. “I’ll be back.”
“We’ll go with you,” Dahlila offered with a sweet cadence.
“No. That’s all right.”
Ava moved through the dancing crowd, letting it sway her every which way. Her attention trailed up to the platform looming over them and the platinum blond standing up there with his eyes now directly on her. This distracted her, and next thing she knew, she was driving right into someone’s chest.
Momentarily, all she saw was red and angrily forgot what she was doing, until her hand went out to his chest to steady herself. His hand roughly gripped her upper arm as she steadied, his scent swathing her, and her gaze rose to his — him.
His piercing black eyes stared down at her, and her heart was beating a new rhythm against her will. The feel of him was cold under her touch, but his presence was violently warm. Dizziness, pleasure, and fear infiltrated her thoughts.
For the life of her, she didn’t understand why, but her mouth began to curve into a smile when their eyes came together. Euphoria, a kind of ecstasy rushed through her in that connection. It wasn’t produced from a heavily weighted experience, like getting hit over the head and feeling dazed, but more the opposite. Like something about him had the power to open the skin down the front of her, a long slice deep to where she was vulnerable, leaking what she was while he recognized it, and it was that vulnerability under him that rushed euphorically through her. It was sublimeness that she’d never known. This all was quietly contained deep within, and its depths could barely be acknowledged consciously.
Vulnerability was the most honest feeling there was and through it were genuine emotions. Unfortunately, vulnerability was the first thing to go for her when she had to develop a tough skin. In her world, vulnerability could land a person a conniving comrade who was really pulling their strings to take advantages, steal everything they had, or use them for the little they had until they were worthless. Vulnerability could land them without food and blankets, and could land them lying with a broken skull and naked somewhere in the dead of the cold.
Her smile had froze, barely able to have started, as she was pulled into the unexpected grasp of his gaze, into some kind of familiarity — they were casted with a reflection of her own lost sullen tragedy, a sad insanity. But then, as if it were never there, his face hardened, and his eyes showed a violent darkness. Inside, she jumped, forgetting how to close back off. His dark eyes began to change. It was as if coals inside them ignited with red embers as she felt his energy shift into a sinister air, and she shivered.
Both were so still, it felt like they were swaying, and she realized then, it was their eyes sweeping back and forth together, betraying their reticence, as it was fighting between frustration and something more drifting.
His eyes darkened again into midnight, and it touched her so deep and low inside that she felt chained there as he lowered his face down to hers, his neck muscles straining. He exhaled a deep breath through his nose and clenched teeth and said viciously, “Watch where you’re going.” A bang came from inside her chest, right under where he would leave a newly formed wound.
His eyes whipped back and forth one last time, and then he took off, her balance with him, and she swayed. She felt her own gravity, and irritation rose up in her from the violation of its intimate and terrifying seize. It left an aftertaste she’d never forget — bitter and waking like a strong cup of black coffee meant to be hot, but left out in the cold far too long. And she was without a doubt wide-awake now.
She stared off into the crowd after him, stunned.
“Are you okay?” Dahlila asked, grabbing Ava’s hand. “What did he say to you?”
Ava couldn’t say anything. She looked back into the body of people, looking for a memory.
What was worse was there were faces scattered all over the club staring at her in varying degrees of disbelief.
There were furious disbelieving ones that disappeared too quick for her to register properly, remarkably white faces staring with a blank curiosity, her group gawking with puzzled wonderment, and the guy standing over the railing upstairs peering straight down at her with wide amazement that lit with a sort of revelation. The whole place seemed to fluster secretly before turning back to normal, and she wondered if she had imagined it.