Levi doesn't like going to Cliff House. Never mind how strange it is, the place is dangerous. Its location atop a bluff. Poisonous foliage. A pack of stray dogs prowling the property. Not to mention his ten-year-old cousin, Nessa, who might or might not have tried to kill him during a previous visit. Little does he know, even she isn't the biggest threat Cliff House has to offer. Darker secrets lurk.
"This is a difficult time for everyone, Levi. I need you to be nicer to your cousin during this visit. I don't know what got into you the last time." Her eyes in the rearview mirror revealed the same expression of disappointment he'd seen before. Pain filtered through as well, quenching the heat of his irritation with the subject.
He looked out the window at the passing orchard and mumbled, "I wouldn't steal from Grandma Mola."
They had accused him of taking a necklace - one made from a drachma coin and passed down through generations - from her dressing table. He had always suspected Nessa. Too bad no one else did. The culprit had left behind a clue to frame him for the crime - his sketchbook on the floor, behind the bedroom door, as if he would be so careless. The adults in the house required no further evidence.
"You're eleven, now. You know better than to take what isn't yours, especially with all that's happening. Please don't make this any more difficult than it needs to be."
They'd been to Cliff House two years before, when he was nine and his cousin, Nessa, was eight. Neither of them had any siblings. He would've liked to get along with her, maybe have someone (aside from his schoolmates) to play with once in a while, but she was a conniving beast, always in search of attention. She wasn't worth the trouble.
As if sensing his master's discontent, the old coonhound curled up on the seat next to him, looked up and whined. He dropped his head on the boy's lap.
As they travelled down the road, ill-tended stone bridges forgotten by county inspectors replaced safer, more modern models with rails. Wilds crowded close to the edge of the road, as if reaching out, to drop the first leaves of autumn to pavement left wet from the rain earlier that morning. The roads narrowed the closer they got to Cliff House, merging to one lane as they passed the neighboring vineyard. Anyone else would've enjoyed the scenery. It only reminded him how much he hated the destination.
They arrived just before noon, with the sun riding high in the sky above the thick tangle of vegetation, above the slumping stone walls of the cottage and the sagging roof. With the clouds of earlier having moved on, nothing impeded the growing warmth of the day.
Hound barreled over Levi to hop down to the yard for a stretch on the pavement and a wander over to the grass. He lifted his leg to the crumbling well while Levi and his mother unloaded their suitcases from the trunk of the sedan.
Dean, Levi's uncle, came outside to help. He was a lanky man, slightly older and taller than his sister and weary. He always had a disheveled look about him, but the impending death of his mother had him dragging even more than usual. His button-down shirt was rumpled like he'd slept in it, and his eyes behind his glasses were red with tears. He took the handle of the rolling suitcase and set it down on the cracked driveway to hug her.
Levi stood off to the side, awkwardly. He didn't know how to handle such situations. He'd experienced loss, in a way, as a kind of hole in his life because his father had never been around. But death - that was a whole new animal, and to be so near to a person in the act of dying. Mortality was a terrifying thing.