by C. E. McGill
The sky over Augury that night was star-bright in that way only skies in the middle of the country can be. Glittering like the little chunk of blue goldstone Julia had tucked in her pocket for protection, like the ring of shaken salt in the garden that she stepped over on her way out the house. She stopped and looked up at them, those stars and the sliver that remained of the waning moon, before getting into the car. Hoping, distantly, that it would not be her last night underneath them.
Julia pulled out of the driveway, glad that the new car — which was somehow even shittier than the already quite shitty one she’d had before the crash — was at least quiet enough not to wake her mother as she left. She made her way down the deserted streets, through what passed for the city center of Augury and out the other side. Her college backpack, filled this time with decidedly non-academic materials, was buckled into the passenger seat to keep it from slipping.
All at once Julia turned a corner and found herself at the entrance to Kit’s Run. There, she emptied the contents of the bag carefully onto the dashboard. There was more salt, of course, a little glass shaker of it. The battered Cyrillic bible and the silver cross necklace on a broken chain. The crystals, the herbs. The spray bottle of water, which wasn’t so much holy as reverse osmosis filtered, but it’d have to do.
Julia had grown up knee-deep in superstition. Her father’s parents had come from somewhere Eastern European, and brought with them the old bible and a great number of proverbs. (Coins on the ground are bad luck. Never say goodbye in a doorway.)
Her mother’s mother, on the other hand, who wore amethyst earrings and collected books on crystals and sacred geometry, had her own pieces of wisdom to impart. (Always start projects on a new moon. Stir your tea clockwise.)
And then there was her mother’s father, who was a farmer and a skeptic, so he said — but Julia still caught him holding his breath when they drove past graveyards, and tossing rusty nails into the garden to help it grow.
Augury itself came with superstitions, though many would say they were purely common sense. Any farmer you’d care to ask had tales of cattle found drained of blood, mutilated chickens, shapes seen shifting just past the garden fence. If there were fewer sightings nowadays, they said, it was the creeping encroach of civilization and electric lights that scared them away. Even so, there were rules, rarely spoken but always followed. (Don’t leave meat outside for your dogs; it won’t be dogs that find it. If you hear a noise outside at night, count your children and lock your doors.)
That night, as Julia sat in inky silence tapping her fingers against the steering wheel, she thought about one warning in particular. One that her mother had whispered in her ear years ago, before kissing her softly on the head and buckling her in for some late night road trip.
Always put something in the passenger seat at night. An open seat next to you is an invitation.
She lifted the empty bag from the seat beside her, threw it in the back, and drove.
Tonight she wanted a passenger.
The idea had come to her that morning, along with a newspaper and half a dozen low-calorie banana muffins.
The kitchen was painfully bright in the mornings, carved into strips of light and dark by the low-lying sun. Julia’s mother had placed a bowl of uninspiring oatmeal in front of her, with all the seriousness of a government official presenting a covert agent his dossier, leaving Julia longing for the days she could skip breakfast and pick up a coffee on her way to class. Except, of course, on days when El stayed over, and they made pancakes in the tiny dorm kitchen with —
No. Julia brought that dangerous train of thought to a screeching halt.
The doorbell rang. It was too early in the day for visitors, which was why Julia didn’t hide immediately as she had from every other neighborly visit the past couple of months. By the time the door opened and a familiar voice drifted in, it was too late to run.
“Julia!” The neighbor was a loud and floral-printed woman named Mabel, or Mavis, or something along those lines. Julia was suddenly very aware of her three-day-old pajamas, her dark-rimmed eyes. “Didn’t expect to see you here! I just came by to see if your mother wanted any of these little beauties I baked yesterday — I accidentally made too many. They’re Weight-Watchers, you know, wink wink!”
Julia’s mother’s gave a very strained smile.
“How’s college going, Julia?” Mabel/vis continued. “You must be what, a sophomore now?”
Ah, the dreaded question. Julia’s bedroom called to her, the comfort of darkness and freedom from old memories, but damned social convention held her in place. “Junior, actually. But I’m… taking a break this semester.”
“Why’s that?” Mabel/vis asked, ever curious.
Because of the crash. Because of El.
“Because of the accident,” her mother supplied hurriedly, and the neighbor’s eyes widened.
“Oh, that’s right — I remember hearing about that. I’m so sorry, honey. Especially about your friend, what a darn shame.”
Friend. Now, there was another dreaded phrase. Every time Julia heard it it stung, one more cinder burning through her as it drifted from the wreckage of her old life. You two were such good friends. How sad it is to lose a friend like that.
“Elspeth wasn’t —” Julia started, then stopped short at the panicked look her mother shot her. A sigh, and she surrendered again to normalcy and to Mabel/vis’ thousand-watt country smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”
After a few seconds of silence, Mabel/vis grinned uncomfortably and cleared her throat. “Oh, I also brought your newspaper from the end of the drive — it’s all about that new highway they’re building. You heard about that?”
“Why, yes,” Julia’s mother said, jumping on the change of subject. It was true, she had. They both had. It was the only real piece of Augurian news in months, and as such the only thing anyone would talk about. Julia could already feel her attention drifting — but the next sentence out of Mabel/vis’ mouth brought her crashing back.
“I hear they’re closing Kit’s Run to build over it, come April. Damn shame.”
A wave of unbidden memories stopped Julia’s heart, set her hands to shivering and her blood to ice. Kit’s Run — no, no. All the roads in Augury, they had to pick that one? No —
Julia’s mother must have seen the way her daughter’s shoulders stiffened from across the room, because within moments she’d grabbed the muffins and the newspaper and bid her polite goodbyes to Mabel/vis. The instant the door shut, she turned to Julia.
“Are you okay? I know Kit’s Run was …”
It took a few seconds for the wave to wash over Julia, after so long keeping it at bay. To spit her out, cold and weak and trembling. Finally, she managed a nod.
She felt like crying, or perhaps like screaming, or perhaps like going out deep into the woods to lie down beneath the naked birch trees and forget about everything. (Most of all, she felt disgusted that she could identify the stage of grief associated with each.) Instead, she just heaved a shuddering sigh and managed, “I guess I’m okay, Ma. Thank you.”
Her mother walked over to kiss her on the forehead, and something about that simple action struck a memory. It took her the rest of breakfast to identify it, that faint chord somewhere deep in her brain — a long-ago warning about nighttime and cars and unwanted passengers. As Julia dumped her empty bowl in the sink and watched it float down in the murky water she thought about that memory, and about Kit’s Run, and about last chances to say goodbye.
Slowly, a plan began to take shape.
Kit’s Run was at once the best and the worst place in Julia’s life, for the same reason: it was the last place she’d ever seen El. Julia went there sometimes to kneel by the side of the road where it had happened, wondering if the early daffodils that grew there now had soaked up any of El’s blood when they were still just bulbs in the ground. She liked to pretend they had, because that meant there was still a part of El left in Augury for her to cling to, long after the rest of her had been sent four states away to the awful parents.
It was a morbid thought, Julia knew — but then, surely you were entitled to a bit of morbidity when your girlfriend was dead.
Kit’s Run looked a lot different now than it had on the day of the crash. It had been beautiful then, the dark pines arching overhead like the struts of a great cathedral, the setting sun turning the clouds at the end of the road to a dazzling stained glass window of red and orange. Now the massive trees just felt claustrophobic as they cast their tangled shadows on the moonlit road.
Julia’s eyes kept drifting to the empty seat as she drove. She was going 38, which was a little too fast for this narrow road, but it was the same speed she’d been driving when she crashed, and that seemed important somehow. She’d once heard that ghosts walked through walls because they were following the same paths they’d walked when they were alive. Maybe Elspeth, too, was tuned to a certain path in space and time.
Why else wouldn’t she have answered Julia before? All the times she’d stood on this road and called her name?
Julia gritted her teeth and gripped the steering wheel. Focus. There was no room for distraction here, no bitterness or loneliness or regret. Only Elspeth — Elspeth with her hair dappled in the setting sun, eyes shining, face frozen in the beginnings of a laugh. Julia’s last picture of her before she’d been tossed from the car and dashed against the asphalt.
Elspeth, Elspeth, Elspeth…
The moon disappeared behind a patch of trees, and the darkness outside the car was suddenly absolute.
Beyond the small bubble of Julia’s headlights, the world was nothing but black. She could not see where the ground ended and the sky began.
Was it just her imagination, or was the dark in the passenger seat thickening? Every time she looked right at it she saw nothing, but as soon as she focused on the road it was there again. Twisting… shifting… wicking up from the floor of the car to form a human shape, like melting in reverse.
It wasn’t her imagination.
One second the shadow was still a shadow, and the next it was her. From the tips of her scuffed shoes to her sheet of chestnut hair to the brown eyes that she had always hated but which looked to Julia like dark iced coffee and Tiger’s Eye, it was her.
“I thought you hated night driving,” Elspeth said, and the shock of hearing her voice again after so long nearly drove Julia off the road.
“Whoa there!” Elspeth reached over to steady the steering wheel. Her hands were odd on Julia’s, light and cold and not-quite-there. “This isn’t MarioKart, Jules.”
Julia made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Sorry. I’ll — I’m — it’s just so good to see you again, El. God, I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.” She tilted her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and God, even that tiny action was so Elspeth it hurt. “How have you been holding up?”
Julia felt herself start to laugh again and wondered absently if this was what hysterics felt like. “Well — bad, El. Pretty fucking bad, to be honest. Not good.”
She winced. “Yea… I thought as much.”
“What about you? Are you —” She searched for the right word, and came up empty. “Alright?”
El paused too, furrowing her brow. Julia kept having to remind herself to jerk her eyes back to the road, to stop staring at every perfect detail.
“I don’t think I am,” she said finally. “I don’t mean I’m not alright — I just don’t think I am. I’m not anything right now. Does that make sense to you?”
It didn’t. “But not in any pain or anything?”
“No. I’m fine.” Her hand reached across and twined with Julia’s on the wheel. It was cold, too cold, but Julia didn’t let go. “Apart from missing you, of course.”
Questions roiled in Julia’s head — are you angry at me? What do you mean you’re ‘just not’? Why haven’t you talked to me before? — but she pushed them aside as best she could and took a breath so deep it nearly hurt.
“El,” she began, “I need to tell you —”
Before Julia could react, El suddenly doubled over in her seat and — flickered. That was the only word for it. When she came back, Julia’s hand was empty, and El was clutching the dashboard like she was pushing it away.
“What’s wrong?” Julia let go of the steering wheel and lunged sideways to grab El’s shoulders, but her hands went straight through. “El!”
Elspeth’s panicked eyes met hers. “Too slow! Go faster, you’re going t—”
Dread hit Julia like a bucket of ice. When had she taken her foot off the accelerator? She slammed her foot down, and the car jerked forward, but it was too late. She watched out the side of her eyes as El flickered, flickered — and faded away.
Julia slammed her hand on the dashboard, then leaned forward and laid her head against the wheel as the car rolled to a stop. She sat there, listening to the quiet tik-tik of the car cooling down, and seethed.
It wasn’t fair.
Then, in her peripheral vision, something moved.
The shadows were shifting again, roiling and twisting themselves into a human shape, and Julia’s heart leapt for joy — until a cold shiver ran down her spine for a reason she couldn’t quite explain. Some ancient, animal instinct prickling at the hairs on the nape of her neck.
And then the thing opened its eyes, and Julia understood.
They were Elspeth’s eyes, all right, but they were… too real. They reflected sunlight that wasn’t there. They glinted. And against the rest of the Thing — which Julia could see now was all pointy corners and sloppy edges, like it was made of construction paper — those terrible, terrible eyes made it look like a cut-and-paste Christmas card.
Julia didn’t even realize her hands were over her mouth until she spoke and it came out muffled. “How do you have her eyes?”
“I’ve missed you, Julia,” it crooned, and oh God, it had her voice too.
Julia screamed and stamped down on the accelerator, hoping the Thing would disappear like the real Elspeth had with the change in speed. The car lurched forward and she was slammed back in her seat, but beside her the Thing remained firmly in place — until it lunged across the gap and curled its fingers around her arm.
“Oh, Jules…. We can be together, Jules,” it cooed, one papery hand reaching up to caress her face. The fingers turned to claws, and it pulled on her arm, trying to jerk the steering wheel. “All you have to do is die, darling.”
There was a horrible, rubbery squeal as Julia braked. The car skidded. The contents of the dashboard slid hard to one corner with a tinkling sound as something broke. Julia’s hand shot out into the mess of crystals and shattered glass and pulled free a handful of salt — then dashed it against the Thing’s face.
The scream it let out then was completely unlike Elspeth’s, and that at least was something. Its skin steamed and fogged the insides of the windows. It folded itself back into the dark piece by piece.
The screams seemed to echo through the forest long after it itself had gone, fading gradually until the only sounds left in the car were the pounding of Julia’s heart and the hitching of her breath as she began to sob.
She tried again, of course.
It had been beginner’s luck the first time apparently, because she didn’t see Elspeth again for a long time. She didn’t even see the one that looked like Elspeth, thankfully — no, her hitchhikers were always different. Sometimes they were harmless, like the hulking black shapes that shifted and grunted in the passenger seat or whatever it was that made those skittering noises on the roof; others, like the ones made of dripping tar and iridescent feathers that lashed out with razor-edge claws, were not. Some appeared for only a second and were gone; some she drove away with salt and prayers and lit matches; a few, especially the hulking black shapes, refused to leave until she reached the sodium-yellow glow of the streetlights at the edge of town.
As frustrating and dangerous and horrifying as they were, Julia found she couldn’t bring herself to resent these passengers, exactly. How could she? They were only answering her invitation. It wasn’t their fault she’d lost El here, in their home. It was Augury that had attacked the forests first, not the other way around, putting up houses and roads and electric lights that burnt back the dark. She couldn’t exactly complain when the dark bit back.
Though she could, of course, defend herself.
When she got back, she would clean up. Pick the feathers out her hair, vacuum the salt out the cracks of the passenger seat, drape blankets over the seats to hide the blood and the scorch marks. Creep inside, wash her face, try and forget it all until the glow of the rising sun washed the horrors away.
Her mother noticed. Julia should have expected that. Like most mothers, Julia’s was eerily observant — and it wasn’t as if the scratches across her face and the bags under her eyes were hard to notice, anyway. But it was still a surprise when she came home one night, splattered in something that could have been blood if not for the sulfurous smell, to find her mother waiting.
“Christ!” She flapped in her dressing gown like a startled bird as she leapt up from her armchair. “God, Julia, what’s — I’ll get the first aid kit.”
“No, ma, I’m —”
“Stay right here!”
Julia lifted herself to sit on the kitchen counter, feeling about five years old again as her mother returned to fuss over her with alcohol and a fistful of gauze. The fussing stopped abruptly when she ran a finger across her daughter’s cheek and it came away black and oily. She hesitated.
“This isn’t yours.”
“No, it’s not.” It had belonged to her passenger that night, a scaly thing with a thousand milky-white eyes that had gurgled as she stabbed it with the silver knife she’d bought online.
Her mother stood there, looking suddenly very small and very frail in her flannel dressing gown and matching slippers. “Where do you go all night, Julia?”
Her eyes were red — whether from tiredness or from crying, Julia couldn’t tell. She looked away, focusing on the oily black marks she’d made on the counter instead.
“I’ve got to pay my respects, Ma.”
Her mother chewed her lip. Tapped her feet. Sighed. Finally, she said, “I’ve always believed in letting you make your own mistakes, and so far it hasn’t killed you. But this time…” She sighed once more, and turned to leave. “I’m going to go exchange this rubbing alcohol for something more drinkable. Just… be careful. Please.”
The next night, Julia found a shotgun resting in the backseat of the car.
The weather got warmer. Neighbors remarked pleasantly that spring was in the air, and the dread gathered in Julia’s stomach. She was running out of time.
Finally, she felt it. It was a warm, blustery night in the end of March — Elspeth’s favorite weather — and as she shut the car door a cold shiver ran down her spine. This was the night.
The drive to Kit’s Run was automatic. She sped up to 38 and wound down the road, the curves so natural to her that she could have driven them with her eyes shut. A couple of times, when the passenger beside her had been too horrible to look at, she had.
It was a ritual by now; a meditation. She let herself disappear into the dark, mind and body and self, concentrating every ounce of her being on a longing. The feeling of a name on her lips. Els—
“Is that a dagger in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?”
The response was so sudden that Julia nearly swerved the car. She really hadn’t expected it to work again that quickly — but sure enough, there, there she was, smiling that crooked smile of hers.
“Both,” Julia laughed through the rising tears. She pushed them back down again — there was no time to lose. First, a test. “El — do you remember our first date?”
Elspeth visibly melted and gave a quiet little smile. “Of course. We went to that coffee place by the library, got milkshakes, the barista got my name wrong…”
El laughed. “We sat outside and I asked you if this was still a ‘study date’ if we didn’t do any studying, and you said…”
“‘I guess it’s just a date, then.’”
“And you picked a flower —”
“You mean I stole a dandelion from some random library flower bed.”
“And gave it to me, trying to be all romantic —”
“And then you sneezed in it, because of your goddamn hay fever, and that was the first and only time we got each other flowers,” finished Julia. She swiped a hand over her eyes. “God, it’s — it’s really you. It’s really you this time. I love you, El.”
Elspeth reached over and laced her too-cold fingers with Julia’s. “I love you too.”
She had to say it now. Before time ran out. “El, I’m so sorry.”
Elspeth frowned. “For what?”
“For — dammit, for killing you! I drove you into a tree!”
“That wasn’t your fault. It was dark, this road is tricky. And besides… I think it’s hurt you more than it’s ever hurt me,” she said gently.
Julia’s eyes darted away from the road for a moment to meet El’s. “So it’s… nice, is it? Over… there?”
“I can’t say.” Elspeth’s brow crinkled. “I haven’t been yet.”
“What about you? How’s college?”
That damn question again. “I, uh… haven’t been, either.”
“What? What about your scholarship?”
“They said they’d suspend it for a semester. I needed time, El.”
Elspeth huffed and fell back in her seat. “You’re going back next semester, right?”
School was — or had been, as Julia reminded herself — their life together. They’d been classmates first, before they even started dating, brought together by study groups and the shared desperation of full-ride kids whose entire life depended on their GPA. Julia remembered every night spent finishing essays, sharing flashcards.
Then she imagined doing it all without El.
“I don’t know, ok?” She sighed bitterly. “I just can’t picture myself doing anything right now. Not without you.”
There was silence for a moment; then, so quietly it was almost a whisper, El said, “I’m holding you back.”
“No!” Julia said, more sharply than she’d meant to. “You’ve never held me back, El, not once. God, the last thing I want is for you to feel guilty about dying.”
Elspeth shook her head. “I don’t mean that, I mean… this. Chasing after my ghost.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think it’s helping, Jules. It’s just keeping the wound fresh. You’re not moving on.” She paused. “Neither of us are.”
It was a horrible thing to realize — that Elspeth might be just as tied to this place as Julia was.
“I didn’t know,” she said softly. “I just wanted to say goodbye.”
El smiled. “Most people get that over with at the funeral, you know. Only you would go all Buffy just to see me one last time.”
“I’m a devoted girlfriend, you have to give me that.”
Kit’s Run wasn’t an especially long road, and they were nearing the end of it. A cramp was growing in Julia’s ankle from keeping her foot steady so long. She turned to Elspeth, her voice quavering.
El nodded, blinking back tears of her own. “Ready.”
Quickly, carefully, so as not to swerve the car, El leaned over and planted an icy kiss on Julia’s lips. Julia kissed her back, one last time.
Julia let the car roll to a stop.
The rest of that spring was awful. Elspeth had been right; it was like losing her all over again. Julia took to her bed with a shattering sense of déjà vu, and didn’t come out again until long past the start of April, after Kit’s Run was closed and decked in yellow warning tape.
The months after were better. She registered for summer classes. It was terrifying, jumping right back into everything, and doing so alone, but it was good to be away from Augury for a while, and all its demons.
It was spring again before she finally went back to Kit’s Run. She’d made it through that last semester like a held breath, willing herself to take one more step and go to one more class despite the cold and the empty space beside her, until she nearly couldn’t take it anymore — until finally, she was done, and she could breathe again. She’d gone back to Augury with her mother, and not long after the cold ended too, as the world sprang back into life again in a burst of flowers and budding trees.
Julia drove up to the entrance, in the same old hybrid with the blood-stained seats she’d never quite managed to scrub clean. A few hundred feet away, massive piles of red dirt and machinery cut a swathe through the forest. It looked so harmless now, so thoroughly tamed by humankind, that it was hard to imagine the wild and haunted place she knew so well — though that could just have been because it was daylight.
Julia got out the car and walked right past the orange cones, up to the line where the asphalt gave way to dust. Feeling self-conscious, despite the fact there was no one around, she cleared her throat and pulled something from her pocket.
“Hey, El. I don’t know if you’re still here — actually, I hope you’re not. But if you can see me somehow, or hear me, well… I wanted to show you this.”
She unfolded the sheet of paper and held it up for no one to see. “It’s my diploma. A photocopy, anyway. They mentioned you at graduation, you know.”
Kneeling down, she folded the diploma and pushed it into one of the mounds of dirt. “I’m leaving this here. I figure it’s as much yours as mine — you worked just as hard for it. Harder, probably.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do now, but… I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry.”
She blew a kiss to the nearest bulldozer, then smiled a little, because it was exactly the kind of thing El would have smiled at.
The walk back seemed longer than it should, perhaps because some part of her was still waiting to hear a voice call out behind her. It never came, of course. She stood by the car and cried a little, but it was the kind of cry that made you feel better by the end. Refreshed. Like washing away the old. She wiped her eyes, dug out her keys, and got in the car to go home.
That was when she noticed the daffodil in the passenger seat.
C. E. McGill is a writer of words, drinker of tea, parent of cats, and lowly undergraduate at North Carolina State University. You can find more of their work (and more importantly, cat pictures) at @C_E_McGill or c-e-mcgill.tumblr.com.