“You shouldn’t sit so close to the edge, love.”
“It’s not that big a fall. I would only break my legs,” Louis replied from where he was lying on the ground. He wondered if every time his mum found him lying there with his bare feet dangling off the edge of a cliff she regretted buying the house above the beach. Regretted moving to California.
“Well, don’t test that theory, please. I went through a lot of pain to push you out of me. Let’s not make it a wasted effort.”
Louis stretched his arms over his head and grinned, squinting against the dull glare of the orange sky. “Why are you so dressed up anyway? You just got back from work an hour ago.”
“Emergency meeting. A big scandal that I have to handle and try to sweep under the rug. The usual,” his mother said, rummaging through her purse. “Shit, I swear I had those keys in here.”
“When I grow up, I’m going to be homeless,” he said, thinking I could never be like you, have everyone depend on me and not fail. “I’m going to beg people for money and hitchhike and sleep on beaches. Maybe I’ll even become a gigolo. I heard they get paid well.”
“Does that mean I can keep your tuition fund then? Because a woman never has enough shoes.” Her mother lifted her Ray Bans and winked, her eyes crinkling at the edges, the newfound keys jingling in her hand. “I’ll turn your bedroom into my second closet.”
“Very funny. I’d love for you to stay and chat, mum, but won’t you be late?”
“Fine. I can take a hint. Look after your sisters, would you? Give them food or something.”
“Or something.” Louis sat up, the ground warm under his palms. “They like it when I sprinkle their cereal with cocaine. Makes them all peppy.”
“I swear to God, sometimes I wonder if they didn’t switch you at the hospital.” She bent down, teetering on her high heels, and pressed a rough kiss to the top of his head. “Don’t break any bones, don’t drug your sisters and don’t go wandering around in the dark. This is LA. If they kidnap you, I’m not paying ransom.”
“Love you too.” He watched her leave, tried to forget that today was movie night. He didn’t want to watch stupid chick flicks with his mother anyway, so… whatever.
He was almost eighteen and reckless and he could walk the very edge of the cliff right now and jump into the sand below, if he wanted to. Heights didn’t scare him. Not even after he’d fallen out of a tree and broken his ankle when he was seven.
Louis twisted around and lay on his belly, rested his chin on top of his folded arms so he could see the waves splash onto the shore below.
The beach was small and unkempt, tucked away from prying eyes, but locals would often wander in. He liked it when they did. He liked to watch them like the shameless voyeur he was, make up stories in his head about the secrets they kept hidden behind their smiles.
Like him, the boy Louis imagined was a failed actor whose dreams had been crushed under the weight of Hollywood rejection.
He’d been sitting on the beach every day for three days now. Sometimes he’d lie down too, his long limbs all flung out like a starfish. He’d always come when the sun hung low in the sky and the place emptied out so he was the only one there. Just him and the seaweed drying on the rocks and a leather-bound journal he always brought with him but never seemed to open.
Not for the first time, Louis thought who are you really?
He was there again two days later when Louis jogged down the beach with his ears full of music and shoes filled with sand. And maybe it was because the boy seemed lonely that Louis slowed down to a walk and came up a few paces behind where he was sitting with his arms wrapped loosely around his knees. Maybe it was because Louis felt a little lonely himself.
He plucked the earphones out of his ears, hesitating.
The boy’s broad shoulders stretched beneath the thin white cotton of his oversized T-shirt, his dark brown hair curling around his ears and the nape of his neck in a way that made Louis’ fingers itch.
“Don’t just stand there,” the boy said without turning his head, with an accent Louis couldn’t quite place. His voice was a little bit rough, as though he hadn’t used it in a while.
“Watching me?” The boy lay back and looked up at Louis with eerie dark green eyes, his heart-shaped lips curving into a smirk. His skin was a light shade of ivory, too light for someone who had spent hours out in the sun. “You’re not as inconspicuous as you think you are.”
Heat crept up Louis’ neck, but he set his jaw and took a step closer. “I’ve only been standing here for like two seconds.”
“I meant the other times.” The boy laced his long fingers over his stomach and closed his eyes, his smirk relaxing into a smile. “You live in the house up there, don’t you?”
“W-what?” There was no way he could have seen Louis, could he? Not from here.
“I could feel you watching me, you know.”
Louis sat down next to him, his jittery fingers playing with his tangled headphones before he forced himself to stop. “You can’t just feel that. Nobody can. It doesn’t work like that.”
“No. No, it doesn’t.” The boy fell silent for a while, the sway of the waves and squawking of seagulls the only sound.
“I wasn’t stalking you. Or creeping on you. I was just bored and you were here,” Louis said, his words a bit too rushed. There was something about the boy that threw him off balance, made him stumble over words. He didn’t like it at all. “I do it all the time. People-watch. You’re not special.”
“I didn’t say I minded.” He opened his eyes and just watched Louis, in a way that made him feel as if he was made of glass. See-through and breakable.
Louis broke the eye contact and took off his shoes, shaking the sand out.
“I’m--Harry. Just Harry.”
“Just Harry?” Louis asked. “Like Sting? Or Madonna?”
“Nothing like Madonna, actually. Wouldn’t be here if I was.” His smile had a wicked edge. He sat up Indian-style and shuffled closer, as if he was sharing a private joke and Louis understood the punchline. “I’m a fallen angel.”
“Of course you are.” He poked Harry’s bare ankle with his toes, right beneath the rolled up cuff of his tight black jeans. “Did you leave your wings at home?”
A sigh rolled off his hunched shoulders. “No, they’re not out right now. And if they were, you wouldn’t be able to see them anyway.”
“How rude.” Harry lifted Louis’ wrist, turning his hand over in his gentle grip and tracing the lines on Louis’ palm with his fingertip. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Louis,” he said, shivering despite the humid heat. “Your hand is cold.”
“Does it bother you?”
“It should bother you. Bad blood circulation and all.” He pulled his hand back and tucked it between his knees. Whether it was to keep Harry from touching him or to keep himself from touching Harry, he wasn’t sure.
“Very few things bother me, Louis.”
He shouldn’t like the way Harry said his name, like a suggestion. And it was strange to think of a boy as pretty, but he kind of was, with his strong jaw and the softness of his mouth, those dark eyebrows arching above almond-shaped eyes that somehow seemed too old for him, and a sense of corrupted innocence that made Louis want to do bad things. Harry looked at him as though he couldn’t wait to wriggle under Louis’ skin and poison him with want and need from the inside out in a way he’d never let anyone do.
As the sinking sun turned the horizon blood red, Louis thought that if anyone could pretend to be a fallen angel, it was Harry.
Harry would be there again and again, watching the horizon as if he was waiting for something to change, the unopened journal at his side. Sometimes Louis would join him, and Harry would do his best to get a rise out of him then laugh when Louis would sling a jibe right back.
They talked a lot, in between those lulls of comfortable silences he shouldn’t feel around someone he barely knew. But he held back, and so did Harry. Every part of him was like a piece of a puzzle Louis needed to put in place so he could see the whole picture and understand.
“How old are you?” Louis asked for the second time, because Harry wouldn’t answer the way Louis wanted him to. Harry didn’t seem that much older than him, but sometimes his eyes would turn serious, as if the entire world was weighing on him too heavily.
“I feel older than I look.” The corner of Harry’s lips twitched upward as he cast him a sideways glance.
“Is there anything about you I can know?”
“It’s best that you don’t. Wouldn’t want you to fall in love with me.”
Louis snorted. What nerve. “You should be worried about you, pal. I’m irresistible.”
“Are you, now?” Harry reached out to run his knuckles down Louis’ cheek so softly Louis wanted to catch Harry’s hand and keep it there for hours. He didn’t. But he didn’t lean away either, not even when Harry slid his hand down the curve of his neck and rubbed his thumb over the jut of his collarbones.
The darkening sky made the shadows lengthen, twisted them into grotesque echoes of their every move, Harry’s eyelashes like spider legs in the hollows under his eyes. Louis couldn’t look away.
“Yeah, I get about five marriage proposals a day. People just can’t seem to stop themselves from falling in love with me.”
“And have you ever loved them back?” Harry dropped his hand next to Louis’, not quite touching.
Not romantically. Not when I’d have to let them in and let them see all the dark parts of me I hide from everyone else.
“No.” Louis picked up a handful of sand and watched it flutter down from his grasp, dwindling until there was nothing but a few grains stuck to his palm. “Have you?”
“I used to. Used to love my father and my brothers once.”
It was the first real thing Harry had ever told him and Louis wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. “I have a mom and four younger sisters. Two of them live with my step dad in the UK though. I miss them.” Sometimes he wondered if they missed him just as much, and feared they didn’t. That they’d forget how he used to read them to sleep and tuck them in. “Why ‘used to’ though? Did you have a bad fight?”
“I guess you could say that. We didn’t see eye to eye on most things. I liked to think for myself too much.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
Harry tilted his head back and let his eyes fall shut. “Do you think the intention matters more than the outcome? For example, if you do something selfishly, but it benefits others as well, is that good or bad?
“Umm… I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. I guess,” Louis took a deep breath, let it out, “as long as you’re doing good, it’s… good?”
“It’s not though. You’re either good or bad. There’s no middle ground. What matters is the intent, not the consequence.” Louis met his gaze, and even though it was dark, his pupils were like inky pinpricks pinned amidst the mossy green. “That’s what I’ve been told, at least. I didn’t obey very well. I’ve never really done much good either. Maybe it should bother me more, but it doesn’t.”
Louis reached out to touch him, but stopped himself, his fingertips hovering an inch away from Harry’s skin. “Did you… did you leave home?”
Harry chuckled, seemingly amused at a memory only he could see. “Not exactly. But kind of, yeah.” He caught Louis looking, the smile sliding off his lips. “Do you worry about me?”
Louis stayed silent.
“Don’t. I can take care of myself.” Harry frowned, his shoulders tense. Louis didn’t know if he was angry with Louis or himself. “It’s getting late. You should go home.”
“Go.” Harry’s voice was cold and remote and he was no longer looking at him.
As Louis stood up, he smoothed a stray curl off Harry’s forehead and left. Even though he’d expected Harry to push his hand away, he hadn’t.
That morning when the sun came up, Harry knew it would happen today. Could feel that throbbing pain in his back, right beneath the scarred tissue beneath his shoulder blades.
It had been set in motion weeks ago. It was too late to stop the gears from turning now. He shouldn’t want to. Nausea shouldn’t be twisting around in his stomach like snakes. Never had before. Not before he’d felt Louis’ eyes on him and knew he can see me.
He’s nothing but another grain in the sand, he told himself as he walked down the pebbled path leading to the beach. It would be over soon, his task finished the way it was meant to.
He rubbed the faded spine of his journal with his thumb and let it fall open in his hands. They were all there, all the faces of those he remembered and who had already forgotten him. There was an empty space where he’d sketched Louis’ face and torn the page out, crumpled it into a little ball so he could pretend it had never happened.
I don’t care. I don’t have the capacity to care, he thought as he came to a stop with his knuckles rapping on Louis’ front door. He backed away, telling himself he should go. Only he’d never been one to do the right thing.
Waiting seemed to take forever and not long enough at the same time. When Louis finally opened the door, his eyes were still puffy from sleep, his hair messy and soft. It was hard to remember the others slept when Harry never had. Louis was fragile and breakable, even though he often acted as if he could lift a mountain with his hands.
“What are you-how did you—”
“You should leave,” Harry said, wincing as the bones in his back pushed beneath the skin.
“Leave? Leave where? I’m kind of home, so… what are you doing here anyway?” Louis crossed his arms over his chest, belligerent and curious. “You can’t just come in here and order me around. You’re not the boss of me.”
The skeleton of Harry’s wings stretched and grew, tearing free of his skin. Even after all this time, it never failed to hurt. It was a punishment he deserved but didn’t regret.
“What’s wrong with you?” Louis padded up to him, gravel scrunching beneath his bare feet, his hand reaching out as if to touch.
“I’m fine. I just… you need to leave with me. Right now.” He could feel the earth shiver. When Louis laid his palm over his chest, Harry felt as if he’d already failed him.
“Something’s going to happen. You’ll die if you won’t let me take you,” he said bluntly, because he didn’t know how else to make Louis see. Before Louis could retreat, Harry caught his wrist and pulled him flush against his body, Louis’ heat sinking into his clammy flesh.
“I really hope you’re not trying to kidnap me.”
Harry choked back a laugh, his back slick with blood. “Please, Lou—”
“I can’t just leave because you’re being neurotic. My mom and sisters are inside. We’re having a family day for the first time in forever. I can’t—”
Harry could feel the earth break and shift, feel the swell of the water as it started to rise. “Just say yes right now.”
“No.” Louis pushed him away.
His back was on fire now, the featherless wings leaving the fabric of his T-shirt in tatters as they stretched and unfurled, casting a skeletal shadow over Louis’ house.
For the first time since he’d met Louis, Harry could see it in his eyes as he stumbled away and fell to his knees. Fear. Of him. Why couldn’t Louis see that he was trying to save him?
“Let me save you,” he pleaded, swallowing his pride. “Let me carry you.”
The earthquake rumbled through the ground and it was happening too fast; Louis’ mother and sisters rushing out of the house and looking right through him, pale lips and trembling hands as they watched the wall of water rise to the sky. But it was only Louis he saw as he mouthed I can only take you.
Louis’ eyes never left his as he crawled closer to them, looking at Harry as though he betrayed him, wordlessly telling him I’m not leaving them here.
You got too close and you fell in love with a stranger. You’re the reason he dies.
He could smell the salt in the air, could hear the frantic pounding of Louis’ heart, could hear his last thought before the water swallowed them all.
He’s never been a stranger. He’s been death all along.