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 — was caught in the heavy drift and disappeared into the gray sky, lost. She looked down at the one 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 address to the shabby house peeking into view. Up a private dirt road, between the richly wooded terrain, an old New England colonial house stood there at the mouth of Lake Clove, its charcoal-gray exterior ghosted by fog.
Her new residence. For now.
The weather had blown her long cherry hair just about completely loose and wild now from the clip she had it in. 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.
For the house’s typical style, this one was large and disproportionate, with obvious newer additions to the original structure. She traveled up the unkempt path, and the warped reflections of the upstairs windows began to look like a person was watching out the window — eerily similar to the way she had done for so many months this past year, staring out, trapped in her mind, a cage which she dreaded to ever slip back into. A small glimmer of light escaping through a moving tree branch revealed the illusion in the empty window, that there was nothing watching, only her memories staring back at her; 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. 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, raftered living room. 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 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’d had where they’d finalized the rental agreement for her to become Dahlila’s roommate. 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 to pick something up, regarding Ava with uncertainty as she did.
“Sorry, I’m just getting my backpack. I was out collecting wildflowers for a project, and the woods here have so much diversity in plant life.”
Ava tilted her head to her, wondering why she was apologizing and wanting her to step away. This earned her an uncomfortable expression. 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 spotted 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?
Dahlila’s 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 didn’t. Instead, Ava stood there staring back, leaving an awkward moment of silence as she registered Dahlila.
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 shone in Dahlila’s eyes when she turned back and her gaze went 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 contemplate the house.
“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 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.” Dahlila waved her hands and turned spritely towards Ava’s bags, which only flustered her more. “Is this all you brought? I know you said you were going to pack light, but…”
Foot in mouth, Dahlila. Now. Not everyone has easy access to the honey pot — don’t start, Ava.
“Well, either way,” Dahlila grabbed her things and tackled the stairs, “I made sure you had some furnishings just in case.”
Ava went to stop her — “Err. Ah — I got that…” But Dahlila was off.
“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 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, her arms swinging at her sides like someone handling disquiet inside. “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 — 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.
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 faraway 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. At nineteen now, Ava wanted it behind her. It had to be. The past had to go if she was going to have a new life, be a new person… figure 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: 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 away sullenly, 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 holding her gaze on 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.
Something caught Ava’s eye, a 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. “What’s in there?”
“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. 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 an oval conservatory. Something about it nearly pulled an awed smile from her.
Its walls and ceiling were all windows with thin, tarnished black metal holding them all together. 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 them, meant to smother everything out.
Visions surfaced of the space cleaned out. A place 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 and hearing Dahlila sigh as Ava reached the top of the stairs.
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 in a long dagger earring only in her right ear, and pulled out her sketchpads and drawing utensils to see what she had left. For awhile, she went to work on fixing her long skirt, which was coming apart, for tomorrow’s first day of classes. It was layered with different black fabrics, lofty and comfortable. She’d made it herself. When it was repaired, it was placed with the rest of her outfit for the next day: a black-and-white-striped long-sleeve shirt that came down on the shoulders, a corset to go over that, and her red suspenders on top of it. Then she washed up for bed.
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, 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.