Ed Baxter appeared even more cautious than usual. In all the years Ava had known him, he'd never been anything less than entirely confident, collected, and borderline smug. At present, he appeared to be none of these things.
He was fifteen years older than his only cousin, but it never looked like that much. He was tall, lean, and muscular with shaggy blond hair and a California surfer's picturesque qualities painted by the media. But he didn't look his age. And he had certainly never acted it.
The usually upbeat man walked into his cousin's bedroom with a frown. She'd never seen him frown before. The only lines on his face were from the permanent smile etched into his skin. His features almost looked distorted by the lack of that smile. If it wasn't for the shaggy blond hair and the shirt advertising sunny Huntington Beach, she wouldn't even have recognized him. It had been a few years since they'd last seen each other anyway. She was terrible at remembering faces after time. Even now, she was already forgetting the faces of her parents. She spent the day recounting them in her mind so she wouldn't forget.
Dad's honey eyes.
Dad's crooked tooth.
She was seated on the opposite side of the small room in a window seat her dad had built for her when they bought the house years ago. He'd even sewn the cushions himself. He'd let her pick out the floral pattern and robin's egg blue buttons. But she'd always found it uncomfortable. He wasn't very good at sewing. And she couldn't sit there for long before the cushions lost their softness and her bones began to ache. She'd been there for hours now.
"How're you doing, Kid?" Ed asked as he crossed the room on his long legs and knelt on the bench beside her. He'd left the door open. So she could hear the muted conversation and clinking of glasses from down the stairs.
His presence was more comforting than she wanted to admit. It wasn't that she wanted to seek him out exactly. Just that her house was full of visitors, and he was the only one not wearing black. He didn't whisper or cry when she was near. He didn't spew out overused phrases in a vain attempt to comfort her. Though his smile was missing for the first time, he seemed melancholy, rather than distraught or falsely forlorn. She respected that he had the decency to be honest.
She didn't know if she should answer him with the same honesty. She turned her attention back to the window where she could look out into the trees behind the house. When they'd first moved to Florida, she complained about how the house didn't have a backyard. Her window looked out over trees and the lake beyond. She could see it peeking out between the branches of trees and tufts of Spanish moss. It was gray, matching the color of the brewing storm above. It was more of a swamp than a lake anyway. She couldn't play outside because the flora was riddled with venomous snakes, snapping turtles, and the occasional alligator that would wander up to the patio to sunbathe.
Her parents used to warn her every time they left her alone. "Don't go outside. Don't play in the yard. It's not safe." They were so cautious and protective of their only daughter. But they weren't there now to tell her what to do. Not to warn her of alligators or even just to play, watch movies, help with homework. They were just gone. And she didn't know how to tell Ed how she really felt about that. This wasn't her first experience with death. He knew that because he had the same loss. But this one hurt differently. It felt fresher and sharper. More real. Maybe it was just because she'd seen this one with her own eyes. The images she wanted to forget but couldn't.
The blood in Mom's curls.
The emptiness of Dad's honey eyes.
Did Mom even have freckles? Or was it just the blood splattered on her face?
Dad's broken teeth.
She jerked a boney shoulder upward. Ed sighed heavily and went to sit on her bed. The mattress creaked under his weight. He seemed too large to be in her small room with its sloped ceiling. The bed always felt so big to her. Now his long legs made him look spidery. The mattress sank toward the floor. He folded his hands in his lap and looked around the room. He hadn't visited since they moved. The room was evidence of a little girl who'd grown into a bigger girl. But it was evidence now of a childhood snuffed out too soon. The kitten poster, turquoise cushions, pink walls, and all the princess themed stickers she'd stuck on everything. These things didn't feel like they belonged to her anymore. She was no longer a little girl. But a jaded preteen with her knees tucked under a stark black dress.
"My mom says you're going to come to stay with us in North Carolina," he said, picking at his callused fingers like someone who wasn't sure how to act around a preteen girl in mourning.
"Aren't you a little old to be living with your parents?"
It was mean. She knew it was. And he wasn't that old anyway, only in his twenties. But that felt like a lifetime away.
He sighed and kept his retort to himself. Ed was usually known for his inability to do such a thing. She heard her parents complaining about the things he got into and the stress he put his family through. She didn't hate him, and she wasn't usually so mean. But grief pulled the words from her mouth. She wanted to make someone hurt like she did, and she couldn't explain why. He'd never done anything to her. They weren't close, being fifteen years and several states apart.
"Most people live with their parents until they're finished with school. I'm just a bit late," he explained.
"I heard you were flunking out. Again." He sighed for the third time.
"I'm trying to be nice to you, Ava."
"I don't need anyone to be nice to me."
"Well—between the two of us—I think I might be the only one who can really help you get through this." She turned to look at him. His ocean blue eyes were vibrant in the gloomy atmosphere of her bedroom. The rain on the window sent shadows over his face, making him look his age for once. His eyebrows were furrowed. The expression hinted at a more in-depth intelligence beyond the usual goofy attitude he wore like armor.
"And how exactly can you help me, Ed?" she asked. "Did you lose your parents too? Because last I checked, they were in the kitchen entertaining funeral guests." His eyebrows rose. The last time he'd seen her, she'd been a spunky little kid. Snarky, of course, but not the kind that could cut so deep. She was still a child. Practically a baby. But she'd lost the sweetness of youth that filtered her words and the sharpness of her mind.
"That's not what I'm talking about."
"Then hurry up and get to the point because I really want to be alone."
"I'm talking about—your problem. With the things you can do." He looked hesitant to say it. Like he was about to poke at something potentially sensitive. She blinked back. Honey eyes confused and lost. "I'm talking about the sleepwalking. The ectoplasm."
"I don't know what you're talking about." He smiled and shook his head as if she was lying. Like sleepwalking was something to be ashamed of. And she didn't even know what ectoplasm was, but it sounded gross.
"You know what I'm talking about, Ava. You know. Your secret is safe with me. All I'm saying is that—you can talk to me if you need help. I know how to find it for you."
"I don't have a secret. I don't know what you're talking about. You're crazy, just like my mom said." The hurt in his eyes was satisfying but brief.
"I suppose that's fair," he agreed. "That's what everyone seems to think these days, isn't it? And maybe you're telling the truth. You don't actually know what I'm talking about. But you will. Someday. You'll figure it out. There's no such thing as coincidence. Just—do me a favor, would you? Come to me when you figure it out. Don't go to anyone else. And if you meet others like you, you can't trust 'em. They're always jealous of what they don't have. And jealousy makes people do pretty nasty things."
She stared at him until he stood and left the room. Then she wrapped her arms around her knees and turned back to the window. The ache inside felt vast and dark but not empty. She felt like she could almost reach inside it and pull out all the pieces of her broken heart. She could lay them out flat on the cushions of her window seat and pinpoint exactly which ones had the sharpest edges.
There was a tiny figure on the roof a few feet from the window, caught in the gutter. It was the corpse of a small bird that must have fallen from its nest. She watched it, wondering if it had died on impact or if it had dropped because it was already dead. Something dark and black oozed from its tiny beak. Thick and black and viscous, matching the feeling of the darkness in her heart.
The end of something, change, the impermeability of all things.