The day that Rose first saw Van Sullivan again was a seemingly normal autumn day.
It was a Sunday. Like she did every Sunday, she spent the morning working on homework at Theo’s incredibly spacious house. He had offered to drive her home, but she savored the long walk she always took from his house to hers. A drive meant going by the cemetery. The walk meant pushing it to the corner of her mind.
Rose couldn’t put a date to when she started avoiding where her father worked. Van had always claimed that the graveyard’s ghosts were friendly. That they liked keeping an eye on the two kids when her father’s back was turned, and that they had made sure numerous times that they didn’t get hurt. According to Van, they had even been the ones who showed them the little cubby underneath the old willow tree. Before Van’s parents had whisked him away to a town halfway across the country, she had been comforted by the thought of spectral guardians. But when she stopped by the graveyard now, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong about the entire place. It had stopped being her playground when Van left town. Exploring the grounds with another person had been fun. Now that she was truly alone when she visited, the idea of ghosts she couldn’t see wasn’t all that comforting.
Ghosts, of course, didn’t exist.
Despite her aversion to her dad’s workplace, she found herself standing outside of the graveyard gates that Sunday afternoon. Thinking about the graveyard was always a mistake; it always brought her back to the spot she had said goodbye at years ago. She would always rest her arms against the cold iron of the gate. She would give the graveyard a quick little survey, daring her brain to conjure up the image of a little boy darting between the headstones. And then she would take a deep breath, sigh, and turn her back to the graveyard like she had a hundred times before.
But, this time, she saw someone.
There was a boy standing among the graves. He wasn’t the little boy from her imagination. He didn’t have the same messy dark hair, or the same too-large, musty blue sweater that was from a slightly older cousin. He was a boy who was right around her current age, wearing more black than she had ever thought was physically possible. Black shirt, black leather jacket, black jeans, and black boots. He even had a pair of black fingerless gloves.
He was leaning up against a gravestone like he owned it. Rose absentmindedly counted the stones out of habit. It was the thirteenth grave in the row directly adjacent to the entrance. The boy was covering the words, but Rose still knew exactly what they said. She ignored the troubled expression on his face. She ignored the chills that raced up her spine, and ignored the feeling of déjà vu that had settled in her gut. Eyes alight with a fire she couldn’t see, she flung open the graveyard’s gate.
“Excuse me!” she shouted as loud as she could, “but you shouldn’t be leaning up against that grave like that!”
The boy leaned back against the grave and gave her a smirk.
“I’m not that heavy,” he said. “I’m offended you think that I’m heavy enough to break it.”
As if sensing her doubt, the boy put more pressure on the grave. Her nostrils flared. She puffed out her rosy cheeks and tried to contain the rage boiling within her. The boy had no idea whose grave he was leaning against. She couldn’t snap at him for something he didn’t understand.
But, God, she wanted to.
She marched over to him.
She hated how she had to look up at him, and hated how he smirked when he noticed the height difference between the two of them.
“Get away from that grave,” Rose said.
The boy held his hands up in surrender.
“Rosie, it’s me,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes.
“My name is Rose-” she started to say, but then faltered when she realized that only one person would call her by that name now. She hadn’t gone by Rosie in years. The memories suddenly came rushing back to her. She felt like she was a little girl saying goodbye again, standing in front of Abby’s grave after Van coaxed her out from the cubby in the willow tree. It had been ten years since she last saw him, but…
Her voice was barely above a whisper when she spoke again. “…Van?”
“In the flesh,” Van Sullivan said, grinning.
For a moment, all that Rose did was stare.
The Van Sullivan that stood before her now was a different boy that she had said goodbye to. Time had turned his childhood mischievousness into something slightly more sinister. There was a hardened edge to him, but there was a timelessness to him, too. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he had somehow become one of the ghosts he had always claimed to see. Van didn’t feel real. If she stuck out a hand to grab onto his hand like she had back then, part of her was certain that it’d go right through.
“It’s...really you,” she slowly - hesitantly - said. What other words could she say to describe the way she felt right now?
“I missed you, too,” he said.
There was so much she wanted to say. So much she wanted to ask. But, instead, all she found herself doing was pointing out the obvious. Her brain could barely comprehend the chance encounter she had accidentally walked right into. Was she dreaming?
“You came back to the graveyard,” Rose managed to get out.
“It was always my home away from home,” he said, resting his arms back down at his side. He started to lean on Abby’s grave again, but paused when he saw an irritated look flicker across Rose’s face. She wasn’t sure if she was frustrated by the nonchalance he had never had, or if she was angry that he hadn’t thought to give her some kind of message before he returned to town.
“You could have come by my house,” Rose pointed out. “Or...given me a word of warning.”
He shifted my weight from one foot to the other.
After a moment passed, he crossed the stretch of dying dirt and leaned up against a different grave. She wanted to reprimand him for the lack of care, but she knew it was a losing battle. At the very least, he wasn’t leaning up against Abby’s grave.
“I had other business here,” Van said, “and I left this town when I was seven. I don’t exactly remember where your house was.”
Rose folded her arms. “But you remember where the graveyard was.”
He mirrored her posture. “I saw it on my way into town.”
They gave each other a look.
And then they fell into a heavy silence.Rose wasn’t sure what she was supposed to feel towards Van anymore. She watched as his gaze traveled towards the mausoleum. In the back of her mind, she recalled the time he had slipped inside through one of its once broken windows. She had always thought of those memories with a nostalgic fondness, but she was starting to realize that Van had never really grown up.
“...You still see them,” Rose said.He hadn’t done anything to hint at it, but some part of her just knew.
Van looked back over at her.
Her gaze dropped down to the ground. She was staring at the dandelions at his feet now, her face devoid of emotion and her voice eerily quiet. “You still see ghosts.”
“It’s not like it goes away with puberty,” Van said.
She didn’t say anything for a moment.Van didn’t, either.
Then Rose shifted a little, readjusted the cuffs of her fall coat, and looked Van over. She could finally put her finger on the emotion that she had been feeling. She had been in awe when he first appeared, but now all she could feel was pity. She slipped her hands into her jacket pockets and tried to shake the guilt beginning to settle in her chest.
“...I thought it would have,” she said. “I thought they were just your imaginary friends.”
He frowned. “They’re real, Rosie.”
“I go by Rose now,” she said.
He rolled my eyes. “They’re real, Rose.”
She let out a sigh. It came out as a miniature cloud in front of her mouth, but it was little more than an afterthought. She zippered her fall jacket and returned her hands to its pockets.
“You’re seventeen now,” she reminded him. “We’re seventeen now. If you’re still seeing ghosts, then you should-”
“Don’t say it,” he interrupted. “Don’t you dare say it.”
For a moment, she almost didn’t. She remembered the games they played in the graveyard. She remembered the stories he’d tell her of the ghosts that wandered between the graves like it was some kind of social hotspot. And she remembered how she used to cling to his every word – she was the person who had always believed him.But they weren’t kids anymore.
“...You need help, Van,” she finished.
He gave her the most betrayed, hurt look she had ever seen him give.
Rose balled her hands into fists in her pockets, ready to weather the inevitable storm. She had no way of knowing it, but the fire in her blue eyes faded then. Some part of her knew that staying strong to her belief would tear the two of them apart.
“I’m fine,” He said. He stopped leaning against the gravestone and stormed over to the gate. He didn’t glance back at Rose. When he looked back at the graveyard from the street, he was looking too far to Rose’s left. The pit in her stomach grew. Rose knew it then: he could see one of his ghosts in the graveyard.
“You should have told me,” he said, pain and venom lacing his voice.
“I-” Rose started.
“Not you,” he corrected. “Them. I thought I was finally going to be back with my friends again after a decade of being away, but it looks like all of South Haven decided it would be a great idea to move on without me.”
He slipped into the street.
Rose would think about that moment many times in the days to come. She had no way of predicting what would follow. The boy that just left what should have been the comfort of the graveyard was just as ignorant. He would think back on their last encounter, too, but only time would make him wish that he had turned around one last time.