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Fiction

Into the Dark

Angie is three months dead before I get her letter. She sent it the week before she died, and I guess that figures; the postal service got fucked in the twenties and never recovered. Maybe she even relied on that delay. Maybe she magicked the delay, but I can’t find any spellwork on the envelope or the letter. We knew each other well enough, once, that if it was there, I couldn’t miss it.

If our lives were different, I would’ve been there. She could’ve called me to be there, but she didn’t. I wonder who was there. I wonder if she was alone. It bothers me, that I don’t know. I could find out, that powerful part of myself whispers, and I stand with that a while at my kitchen counter, letter in hand, ripped-open envelope resting on the local free newspaper and a furniture store flyer. She sent a letter for a reason, instead of doing any number of other things. Finding me on social media, emailing me, calling me.

Using the powerful part of herself to call me.

Should I have known that she was gone, with the bond we once had? Even though we mutually cut that cord? No, I guess not. That’s what cutting the cord accomplished. Out of sight, out of mind, out of touch. Excavated from each other’s hearts.

Except.

I wouldn’t be holding a letter from her, handwritten in what’s been her favorite blue ink for all these years, if that were true. And I wouldn’t feel as though I was holding my breath, holding very still, to see her words on the page. To see what she was asking me.

Nobody called me, of course. Nobody knew to call me. But I knew she was dead. It was in the alumni newsletter that I’d tried eight hundred million times to cancel and unsubscribe from, and it always came to me, by hook or by crook. No matter where I moved, no matter anything. And when it came, I opened it. A tiny curse, so far as curses go. And this time I saw her face, her eyes, her smile, the picture ringed with an oval of black-lined lilies. A full-page bio, written by somebody whose name I recognize, but I couldn’t picture their face or remember who they were, how we knew them. They weren’t close with us, then. Nobody was close with us, the edifice that was Us, foreheads pressed together, the world at our feet, magic crackling in the air around us.

When you’re that close with a person, the only thing that separates you is you. We bickered sometimes, mostly funny, mostly friendly. By the end, our final fight brought a hurricane inland or was during a hurricane, I guess that detail doesn’t matter much, just hair plastered to faces by the rain, streetlights blowing out in showers of sparks, trees crashing down.

If we’d had a third, would things have been different? My darkness and her light, balanced? Even a dog, maybe, or a cat. I’ve never had either. Maybe she did, after. It’s been twenty years; I’m sure she had something. Somebody.

But she wrote to me. She didn’t apologize, but I wouldn’t expect that, no more than she’d expect me to apologize. We’ve always understood each other. I think we always expected to find our way back to each other. We thought there would be time.

The letter is short.

“Hey Jessie, it’s been too long. We should meet up, at the old place. Don’t believe the rumors, okay? Just be there, okay? Angie.”

Most people don’t write letters how they talk, but that’s Angie. I’m surprised she didn’t just say just meet me. I would’ve known. I would’ve gone. I’m going.

It isn’t really that far. A few hours. I don’t know what to take, so I don’t take anything. I didn’t realize it was dark already, that I’d stood in the kitchen for so long, but it tracks. And the steely clouds that piled up all day, taller and heavier and darker, let go as I get onto the highway.

Let go, I could just let go. I thought I had.

I’ve made the drive at night before, to our college town. In the rain even, silver torrent in my headlights as I crept down one mountainside, crept up another, green-flashing animal eyes in the tall grass at the sides of the road, very occasional cars passing me going the other way, or coming up behind me abruptly, passing too close and too quickly on a double yellow line. I stop to pee at a 24-hour gas station before I get there, pavement steaming still from the day’s heat, the cool rain. I look at myself in the flat, smeared steel mirror, the thin flickering fluorescent light, but I don’t know what I’m looking for. I buy a bottled mocha, think about it for a second, grab a vanilla one too. Angie liked vanilla. I don’t smoke anymore, but I get a pack of clove cigarillos, since they don’t sell clove cigarettes anymore, and a purple plastic lighter.

Coming around the final turn, coming down the final mountain and seeing the town nestled in the valley like Christmas lights cupped in a giant’s palm, breaks down some barrier in me, thaws a piece of ice in my heart, and I start to cry. I get off the mountain and onto the main street and have to pull over, the world kaleidoscoping in my tears, filled with too much light even in the dark, the streetlights at this end of town still the old yellow ones.

I lean my head back against the headrest and close my eyes, and the tears seep down my cheeks and drip off my chin. I don’t sob; this hurt is too deep and old for that, so scarred over that this break is a surprise, but maybe I should’ve expected it. I don’t know what to expect, and that’s a little scary, a little exciting.

I don’t see any other cars on the road as I make my way through town, nobody walking either, as though I’ve slipped backstage somehow and am making my way through the unoccupied set pieces of my past life. Or a ghost town, and I turn that over in my mind like a neat rock that I picked up, as I get onto campus and figure out where to park so that I can enter the woods.

It isn’t my first time finding this path behind the dorms in the dark, though I rarely did it alone. I didn’t check to see what the moon was before I came out here; we used to do that, come out here on full moons. We did it once for a new moon, but the energy was all wrong for us, and that night was one of our first, worst fights.

My shopping bag swings against my leg, the sweating coffee bottles inside making it cold and wet even through the fabric. There are things making noise in the woods. I don’t know if they’re bugs or frogs or even nightbirds. I don’t know if it’s the wrong time of year here for cicadas or the wrong year for cicadas, but I keep thinking I hear one and keep not hearing one. It’s definitely the wrong time of night for lightning bugs, though I think I only ever saw five total while I was here.

It isn’t deep woods and it isn’t old woods. I’m not sure the oldest tree here is more than a couple of hundred years, if that. But I’m not here for the trees; if I was, they are elsewhere in town. A trio of oaks in the park surrounding the library. A sycamore tree in the middle of a field, tall and pale with peeling bark and gigantic leaves. No, I’m here for the exposed stones at the top of the trail, that look out over the valley as the back of the mountain falls off. Stones that look like they have waves fossilized on them, from when all of this was under water. I always felt so connected to the water, and Angie felt more connected to the earth, and this spot, here, combined our energy like it was made for us all those eons ago and then just waited here. Welcomed us when we found it freshman year, after finding each other.

We were stupid, of course. We didn’t misuse it; we didn’t try to make wishes, or use it to ensnare boys (or girls), nothing like that. But when you stumble into power, and don’t really have a direction to take it in, you spend a lot of time just kind of blissed out with it. We’d lay on the sun-warmed rock smoking and staring at the sky as it faded into night, feeling the world spin around us, the tops of our heads floating somewhere in the stratosphere by the time we stumbled back downhill for dinner before the dining hall closed, to make gestures at classwork, to read each other’s cards into the night, and drink too much soda from the vending machine, and watch the same movies looping on the college network, sometimes for classes and sometimes just whatever the school licensed.

There are still some movies that I’ve never sat down and watched from start to finish, but I’ve seen them a million times anyway, because they were on the school network.

I stand on the rocks, finally, superimposed over twenty-years-ago me, and look up. There’s the moon, a glowering rusty fishhook of a crescent, ringed around with parting clouds. The wet rocks smell like, and not like, wet concrete. I take out the bottled coffees and look down at the stone surface, take a few steps this way and that way, until I feel the thrum, the recognition. Here, it was here. I set them down, sit myself down. The damp immediately starts to soak through my cutoffs, but what else was going to happen?

I tap the pack of cloves against the side of my sneaker, at the arch, to pack the tobacco a little more tightly, then pull open the top and shake one out. They smell good and clovey, the spice scent mingling with the humid greenness around me, the paper a little sweet against my lips. I’ve been out here long enough that the flame from the lighter seems very bright when I flick it, and I don’t think anything in particular when I light the clove. Angie asked me to be here. I’m here.

Don’t believe the rumors. Angie, I don’t even know where they buried you. If they buried you.

As soon as I think that, I start to feel, barely, the spark of our old connection. Like with really old-fashioned fluorescents that aren’t fully on when you flip the switch. Or a flashlight with dying batteries, in reverse. That first flicker.

I finish the first cigarillo, my lips numb, and light the next one. They taste awful, not how cloves did, no matter how they smell. But I don’t smoke anymore. I also don’t try to speak with the dead very often, now do I? If that’s what I’m doing here. I rummage in my purse for one of my decks, just a rubber banded Rider-Waite that I got at a garage sale in high school. I didn’t intend for it to be my main deck; I’ve always tried to be more distinctive, and use my Salvador Dalí deck as my main, or the limited numbered one from that photographer in Italy. Never the Crowley deck, though. We both had one, Angie and I, and we both didn’t like the energy it gave, even after leaving it in moonlight, leaving it with quartz, leaving it in the sun, wrapping it in silk. Just scratchy and abrupt like a TV gone suddenly to static, except they don’t do that anymore. TVs just go black now.

Another flicker, zinging in my fingertips. I shuffle the deck, hesitate about putting the cards on the wet rock, do it anyway. I don’t want to muffle the connection, or interrupt it. Insulate myself against it.

There are protections I should be taking, doing this. Salt, chalk, something. This is dangerous. I know this is dangerous. But it’s Angie.

I just do a three card pull: past, present, future. I don’t really know what I’m asking, I don’t really know what I’m hoping for. Past: Two of pentacles. Agitation, obstacles, embroilment. Present: Death, and I bark an ugly laugh, lean back and pop the seal on my coffee. No shit, death. Blah blah, the death card doesn’t mean you’re going to die, we’ve all seen TV, we’ve all read the cards, sometimes death is death. Next to me, the seal on Angie’s coffee pops, and a little rime of frost traces down the side of it, melts away in the night summer heat.

Final card, the future: the Magician. “But what am I supposed to succeed at?” I ask the cards, the universe. Angie. My right arm gets cold, like she’s leaning over to look, like her hair is brushing my shoulder, mingling with mine. The infinity symbol over his head looks like the pentacles being juggled in the first card. The perfect fucking spread for our messy goddamn lives together, and apart.

We could do anything, we once thought. But what we ended up doing was fighting, and over stupid things. Every time it was something ultimately inconsequential. We were just never satisfied, with the world, with each other. We were just too close but also too far apart.

I shuffle the cards back in, the wet ones sticking and dragging against the others in the deck. I don’t draw again; I don’t want more questions right now, and can no longer clear my mind to calmly reach for answers. The hairs on my arms are standing up, and even when I’m not exhaling smoke, I can see my breath hang briefly in the muggy air.

I light two cigarillos at once this time, balance the other on the popped cap of Angie’s coffee. It isn’t full anymore.

I finish my coffee and lie back on the rock the way that we used to, look up at the sky. The clouds have all moved on now, and now I see more stars than I know the names of, as the back of my shirt gets wet, and then cold. My cigarillo paper crackles when I drag on it, and then Angie’s crackles. I don’t look yet. I haven’t done enough, but I also don’t know what she set up. But with each breath I get colder, and with each breath I’m reaching across, stretching my hand into the darkness, to reach for hers.

“I don’t think any of this turned out the way we thought it would,” I say, still lying on my back, still looking at the sky. She can hear me. I know she can hear me. Maybe she’s talking too, but I can’t hear her yet. I exhale smoke, and a moment later, another thin cloud of smoke rises to join mine. “I don’t know if I even remember what it was supposed to be. If nothing else, we were still going to be together. Still friends. Still something.” Regret, that’s what I’m feeling. Regret.

A night noise, out in the woods. Probably just a deer, maybe a skunk or raccoon, but I sit up in case it isn’t. What am I going to do if it isn’t? What would I do if it was a bear? Well, the edge of the cliff is right there, I think darkly, and then laugh. Never. I would never.

“Angie what’s going on? What am I supposed to do?” I’m crying again, surprising and not. I never really mourned her, did I? And over the years, I never mourned our friendship either. I was too pissed off, too full of myself, and I wonder how much of that was just our magical natures sparking off each other. We could’ve fixed that, coped with it, if we were different people. But that’s life, isn’t it? You’re the person you are.

I turn to look at the Angie-feeling space in the world now, finally. I’m in the right mindset, or I can’t take it anymore, which is almost the same thing. And she is there, and isn’t there. She’s like a polaroid that hasn’t developed fully, and in the daylight, I probably wouldn’t be able to see her at all.

“Hey Jessie,” she says, her voice whispery across the distance from wherever she is to where I am now. “I’m not really supposed to be here.”

“I figured.” I offer her the pack of not-really-cloves, and she reaches for it, reaches through it. She quirks her lips in a frown and tries again. Becomes that much more solid. A cigarillo falls out, rolls towards her on the rock, and she picks it up. “What are we doing?”

“Sitting here smoking, like the old days,” she says with kind of a laugh. I flick the lighter, and she leans into it, transparent at the edges, her eyes catching too much light, but her. It’s her. I watch her inhale, the smoke pooling in her form like dripping dye into water, and she’s firmer at the edges, but I get the sense that there’s only so solid she’s going to become, and only so long she can do it for.

“But you wanted me here for a reason.”

“Yeah, I did.” She blinks at me with her rain and embers eyes. “I’m glad you came.”

“I am too. I missed you.” I take a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” For what? For everything. She has to know, for everything.

“I missed you too, Jessie. God, we were stupid.” She laughs, ash of her cigarillo slowly snowfalling away. “I’m sorry too. For so much.” By the time the filter burns away, smelling horrible, she’s almost real. Just wavery at the edges, wearing one of her witchy dresses, or maybe one of my witchy dresses, for how much we swapped everything back and forth, always.

“So now what?” I ask, in the lingering pause. I feel the spin starting, like the space between dropping the needle on a record and when the music starts. We’re not firing on all cylinders again yet, but we’re getting there.

“Do you trust me?”

“Angie we haven’t seen each other in—”

She interrupts me. “Yeah, yeah, but who cares? We’re here now, and it’s like no time passed at all. The things that we can do now, with everything that I know now. You must’ve kept studying too? We’ve got so much catching up to do.”

She is, and isn’t, right. Maybe if we were both alive, it would feel that way. I want it to feel that way. It almost feels that way.

I try again. “But Angie you’re—”

“I know.” She stares at me, defiant, exultant, and I get to my feet and she follows.

“Angie, what did you do?”

She grins, inspired and excited and alight. “Remember that old cartoon? Was it Sylvester? It’s a great trick, but . . . ”

“Oh, Angie.” The obituary in the newsletter didn’t say what happened. I’d assumed she’d been sick, had cancer, something. I didn’t try to look it up. It never occurred to me that Angie would be willing to do that for power. We all have our limits, and sooner or later, we all stare into that abyss, asking whatever questions we might have, but once you pierce that veil, there’s no guarantee of anything, much less answers.

“No, Jessie, it’s good, it’s great. You have no idea how this feels, what I can access now. What doesn’t limit me anymore.” She’s talking fast in that old way, caught up in her own excitement, and back then, it used to catch me up too.

“Yeah, nothing like breathing to keep you from reaching your peak.” I’m shocked, but I’m not scared. I should walk away, not give her bullshit any kind of attention, except she did it, she’s dead, that’s it. There’s no coming back from that. But she’s saying there’s something past that and, in spite of myself, I want to know. Maybe I feel like I owe it to her. And if I walk away now, I’ll never have another chance. I’m not sure of much, in this breathless moment, but I am sure of that.

“Don’t be a bitch, Jessie,” she says, half laughing, all serious. “We wasted the time that we had, when we were together and working together, and here’s our do-over. We can be together again. We can accomplish things.”

“What were we going to accomplish in college? Come on.” We thought that the world was on the brink of changing anyway, and we wanted to be there for it. If there was going to be a break, we wanted to try to heal it. We wanted to make it better. We wanted a utopia that we didn’t know how to make.

She must have some sense of my thoughts. We used to be on such the same wavelength. “What do you want to accomplish now? You’ve got to have something. Back then, we talked about changing the world, don’t you want that?”

What real change can the two of us effect, when one of us is dead? She’s still waiting for an answer, of course, a flickering after image, an unmoored burning soul that was once attached to mine. Slowly, I say “I feel like when people talk about attaining real power, they want to do things like live forever.”

That hurts her, and I’m sorry. Her whole form flickers, like when there’s something wrong with a big neon sign.

“That wasn’t going to be possible,” she says after a pause. So she was sick. “So this is the option I took, when I still could.”

“Okay, but I’m not—”

“No, but now I’m on this side, I understand so much. I told you already. The possibilities.” She’s frustrated, bordering on frantic. We don’t have much time. We’re already out of time. “You said you trusted me,” she says in a small, faded voice, and something small and vital breaks inside of me, a tiny quiet shatter. A twinkle light, a glass thermometer.

I take a long, shaking breath. “No, I didn’t say that. You said that.”

“Jessie, who else was I going to come to? It could only be you. There was only ever you.” She holds up her hand, like it’s pressed against a window, and I don’t even think, I put my palm against hers. There’s a hum, a little feeling of frisson. For me, it’s like putting my hand up against a cloud, or falling rain. I don’t know what it feels like for her. I bite back the impulse to sob or hug her.

“I know, Angie. I know.” I feel deep in it now, the top of my head totally off, my energy just flaring out from me like I’m the wick and it’s the flame, Angie the moth to my living self. That final connection complete, if a little off. Shit. I really should’ve brought salt.

“Okay, so did you bring chalk? Are we going to do this?” She’s excited, energetic again. I can’t really expect emotional regulation in her state, it wouldn’t be fair. Or relevant.

“Of course I have chalk.” Chalk and tarot cards, in my bag at all times. Why not salt? What did I do with it? I get out the box, pull out an unbroken piece. I try to isolate my thoughts from her energy. She expected me to go along with her. And I don’t want to lose my friend for a third time, but what she’s asking of me is impossible.

I can’t. I won’t.

She’s dancing in place, just a little, as I draw the first arc of the circle. She’s telling me that when she did it, she was at home in her living room, but she’d wished she was here. She had ripped the carpet off her living room floor, pulled it back to show the old boards beneath, gotten down on her hands and knees to put the chalk down. She was afraid she’d waited too long, and it was too late, that she wouldn’t be able to do it. That she’d just lie down on the floor and never be able to get up again, and that would be that, like tipping over a glass of water. But got it done, through sheer force of will, the chalk, the flame, and a razor. The sound of thunder, before she closed her eyes in this world and opened them across the threshold.

I listen without listening and draw the circle. The rock is wet, so it’s hard going. It takes a lot of drawing and redrawing, and she’s so distracted, so caught up in the shared rhythm of our selves merging again once more, that she doesn’t realize the syncopation. She doesn’t know it’s off, until I finish and sit back on my heels, and I’m still inside of the circle, and she’s outside of

“Jessie?” she asks plaintively, her voice a fraying ribbon. Hot tears slide down my face, and in that way, I’ve brought salt after all. “Jessie, it isn’t . . . that isn’t right, you need to . . . ” But she doesn’t finish, she just stands there looking at me, brows knitting together, working through it. The cliff’s edge is right there. But the cliff’s edge is not for me.

“Angie, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I don’t look away from her. If nothing else, I owe her that.

“But Jessie, I need you. We could be together, you understand—we could do things together again and it would be better than it ever was. We won’t have to worry about anything.” Except I don’t think that’s true. I also cannot countenance what the dead have to worry about, and let that thought slip away from me before I waver. She’s scared, she’s alone, and I can’t help her. She thinks I can, or she wants me to think I can. I also cannot countenance what help the dead need, and I break again, a little bit more, a little bigger. A wine glass, a vial of perfume.

“Angie, I can’t. I miss you, but I can’t.” She doesn’t look so solid anymore. She looks more like a hologram, just a few layers of color and light, shimmering depending on the angle you look at her.

“You don’t have to miss me.”

I don’t have to miss her. That almost gets me. I drop to my knees, reach out to smudge out some of the lines in my circle. She’s there in a flash, leaning down eagerly to watch, and I stare into her face, my fingertips hovering just over the rock, and it’s like I’m just crackling with static. I blink, and look up; the stars are gone again, the sky clouded over again. When I look back at Angie, I can see her flicker. I take my hand back.

“I love you, Angie,” I say. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I stay crouched, hugging my knees, and she starts to cry, little lost sobs that echo out into the darkness and tear at me. I watch her, still fading little by little, as thunder rumbles down overhead and up through the soles of my feet and in my sternum. There’s a flash of lightning, so bright and close I think for sure I’ve been struck and it’s killed me after all, but when I can see again, I’m still alive. I’m still breathing.

And Angie is gone.

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Jennifer R. Donohue

Jennifer R. Donohue. A white woman with dark hair pulled up into two buns, wearing a black mask, standing in front of an etched-glass window.

Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and their Doberman. She works at her local public library where she also facilitates a writing workshop. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Fusion Fragment, and elsewhere. Her Run With the Hunted novella series is available on most digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.