CW: referenced child death
Originally, Cheyenne came for the view. She came to stand at the edge of the cliff and watch the waves crash against the rocks below while smelling the salt on the air and listening to the rush of the water. Instead, she mostly wound up staring at the little cottage farther along the cliff.
Her cousin hadn’t mentioned it. But she supposed it wasn’t that noteworthy to the locals.
Cheyenne wasn’t sure when her feet started moving, but soon enough, she was standing on the faded path that led to the cottage’s front door. She could only imagine how old it was. Any modern zoning laws would never have allowed anyone to build a house so close to the edge of the cliff. It was just a rock slide away from falling into the ocean.
She pushed the front door open and stepped inside, the sound of the ocean muffling into silence as she pushed the door closed again behind her.
She was standing in one large room—living room, kitchen, and dining room combined into one, with a doorway at the back that presumably led to a bedroom and bathroom. The doorway had once had a door, but it was fully open, the door itself on the floor, and the hinges had broken awkwardly away from the wall as if they had rusted to the point that they had simply given up.
She expected the floor to creak as she began cautiously exploring, but it was as if the entire cottage was under a hush, like the layers upon layers of dust on every surface were muffling the world away.
There were pots and pans in the cupboards still, though the cupboards themselves were beginning to sag and some of the doors had fallen off, partially or completely.
The dining table and chairs were still standing, but they were cracking and half-swallowed by the same mold swarming over the walls, the couch, the armchair, and patches of the floor.
There was a half-collapsed child’s bed frame in the corner of the main room, tucked into the gap beside the fireplace. The moldy, crumbling remains of a teddy bear sat where a pillow once rested, bleeding soggy sawdust stuffing.
Cheyenne took half a step toward the bed frame, only to come to a halt when she heard a small, high-pitched voice giggle. It was all but deafening in the silence.
Slowly, she turned to look at the doorway at the back. There was no one there that she could see, but a pair of small, soggy handprints had appeared, as if a small child had grabbed the door frame to peer around it.
“Hello,” Cheyenne greeted cautiously. “Do you want me to leave?” Probably not, or at least not at that moment, or else she really doubted she would have felt so drawn to the cottage to begin with.
A high-pitched huff answered her, and every window rattled at once. Despite that, Cheyenne didn’t feel as if she wasn’t welcome. Instead, it simply seemed … expectant.
The entire cottage smelled like mold and mildew and soggy wood. Stale and old and stagnant. It smelled the way suffocating felt. To a child used to playing by the ocean all day, it had to be unbearable.
“Okay,” she agreed, and she headed for the window in the kitchen area—the one that overlooked the ocean. She tested her weight on the edge of the counter, and it creaked, but it held as she climbed onto it and started hauling the window open.
It had not opened in a very long time, and it wasn’t particularly keen to just then. For a few seconds, it didn’t budge, and when it finally opened half an inch, it shrieked like a skidding car.
Cheyenne paused, took a deep breath, and heaved her weight against the window. It creaked up a few reluctant millimeters at first, before abruptly giving up and flying the rest of the way open so quickly Cheyenne nearly toppled off of the counter. A small, soggy hand pressed against her back for just a split second as she caught her balance, leaving the hem of her shirt damp as it retreated.
The smell of sea salt air and the sound of the waves crashing below seemed to barrel into the cottage as if they had been waiting for the opportunity to come back inside.
Behind Cheyenne, the front door squeaked open. She climbed back down from the counter and turned around.
A trail of small, wet footprints led from the doorway to the rest of the house, to the counter, to the front door, where they stopped.
As far as dismissals went, it wasn’t exactly subtle, but she wasn’t going to argue. Even kids—especially kids—could get mean when they wanted to, and she didn’t want to give them any excuse.
She headed for the front door, but she paused on the front step, smelling the salt on the air and listening as the water crashed and rumbled. The door was still open behind her, waiting politely.
She pulled her keys from her pocket and slipped one key chain off of the rest of the assortment. It was a small, fuzzy panda bear that fit in the middle of her palm. It was old enough that its white had turned to beige, but it was in one piece still, unlike what was left of the bear on the bed.
She turned around, held the tiny panda out as if for inspection, and then tossed it into the room. It sailed through the air for a second in a brief arc before it landed on the floor, its metal split ring hardly even jangling as it hit the softening wood of the floor.
Another giggle was the response, high-pitched and musical, before the door slammed in her face. An unorthodox thanks, but she would take it as thanks nonetheless.
She turned away from the cottage and looked at the sky.
It wasn’t late yet. She still had plenty of time to walk the cliffs.