OUR HOUSE ON THE CLIFF • by Lindsey Baker Bower

Our house on the cliff had damp walls that huddled over us as we slept. Ma and Mary shared the bed in the loft while the rest of us kids slept below on pallets we kept behind the stove during the day. Our cousin Dan was sick and his Ma sent him to live with us that summer so he could fill his lungs with sea air. He mumbled in his sleep. He’s the one who found the crack in the wall.

It was a crack that looked like the arched body of an eel. I could fit my thumb through the thickest part. When Dan first showed it to me, we raced outside, tracing our fingers on the wall, minding splinters and stepping carefully around the rocks on the cliff side, to see what the crack looked like.

“Nothing,” Dan said, his cheeks all pale from running. He palmed the uninterrupted siding. He was taller than me by only an inch, even though I was a whole two years younger.

We began to hear voices that night. At first I thought it was Dan mumbling in his sleep but he reached over and took my hand so I knew he was awake.

Dan and I crept out of our pallets, trying not to disturb the others. We inched to the crack and saw brightness peeling through.

“Daylight,” Dan whispered.

I shook his hand loose from mine and got even closer.

“Wait,” he said. He was always more scared than me, even though he was a boy, because he said his Ma made him scared of everything while mine made me fear nothing but the goblins that lived on the steep side of the cliff.

I put my eye right on the thickest part of the crack. There was a sandy beach leading to a calm ocean. The water was blue, not grey the way it was here. The sand had no rocks, either. And then I saw them.

“There’s people there,” I said. Mouthed, really, so worried about waking Ma and Mary, but also worried about the people in the crack, about what would happen if they heard me.

There was a woman in a white bathing suit and a young boy in swim trunks. He was huddled over a tide pool.

“Let me see,” Dan said. He pushed me aside and put his eye to the crack. He breathed in sharply and almost coughed, but caught himself.

“It’s me,” he said.

I was wary of making more noise, so I shook my head to show I didn’t get it.

He turned around, his eyes closed. “It’s me and Mother on the beach.”

I thought he was crazy. I put my finger to my lips to tell him to be quiet, that we would talk more in the morning.

We waited until Ma, Mary, and the rest of them were out — some to town, some to play by the shore — before we looked through the crack again. This time it was a field, and the boy was older, wearing a baseball cap, his mother sitting on a blanket reading a book.

“One of my games,” Dan said. “Only all the other players are gone.”

I studied his Ma this time. Hair slicked back into a ponytail, the arch of her calf visible and strong. She looked incredibly healthy next to Dan, who was just as pale as ever.

The next day the crack showed Dan’s Ma picking him up from school.

“Doctor’s appointment,” Dan explained.

The next was a scene at their house, which I’d never been to. There was pale wallpaper behind the old kitchen table where the two sat for breakfast. His mother looked tired. He looked even worse, his eyes lost in his gaunt face. They didn’t look up from their toast.

I was reading by the cliff — a safe distance so the cliff goblins couldn’t snatch me — when Dan came running up, his breath low and tight like he needed to rest. He explained that he figured out what the crack meant.

“It’s moments in my life, from my past, and as soon as it catches up with the present something will happen.”

“What will happen?”

He looked out over the cliff and shrugged. I thought I knew what he was worried about. It was what we were all worried about.

From then on, Dan checked the crack every hour, even at night when we all slept. I usually went with him because it was a scary thing, and scary things were made better when you had someone to hold your hand.

The scenes in the crack started to change more rapidly.

His mother talking to no one at the kitchen counter while Dan lay on the couch doing homework.

In the hospital. In their home, in Dan’s bedroom. In the bathroom, while my aunt put on her makeup and Dan watched.

The crack widened too, but slowly. I could now just squeeze my hand in, not that I dared.

Dan hardly ever stopped coughing. It got so bad he could hardly speak. Ma let him sleep up in the loft with her, which meant I had to sleep next to Mary, and Dan and I couldn’t check the crack at night together. His great hacking cough kept us all up, silent and staring at the ceiling.

On that final night I got up to look through the crack by myself, pretending to get a glass of water. There was nothing. Or not nothing — a paleness, an emptiness.

The crack was gone by morning and Ma went into town to get a doctor. Dan would never leave the loft. I went up and held his hand even though I was the scared one. He couldn’t ask about the crack. There was a window that was high enough that you couldn’t even see the edge of the cliff. Just the water spreading out forever, like a soft wet blanket.

Lindsey Baker Bower lives in Atlanta with her husband and dachshund. Her fiction has appeared in Third Point Press, SmokeLong Quarterly, Bodega, and elsewhere. She’s working on her MFA at Georgia State University, where she is a Paul Bowles Fellow.

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