Jan 23, 2021
16 mins read
Romy didn’t stick to the walkways weaving from building to building in the little tucked-away oasis of the Glenvale College campus, instead cutting across the grounds and fiddling with her phone without looking at it just to give her something to do with her hands. The Grey Towers loomed, menacing now that a fresh corpse was tied to it and starting to decay even as Romy crossed from the graduate village full of old Victorians just on the edge of the campus grounds proper to the undergrad dorms. Quiet had settled over the night like a thick, scratchy blanket, raking at her skin until it felt like it would slough off to relieve the pressure; students should be walking around, chatting with their friends, discussing dinner plans, but only ghosts had joined her.
When there was more dark than light during the course of a day, you could feel the weight of the encroaching Halloween horror and the threat of the dead returning—that was the mood that had settled over the cinnamon-sweet night. Just yesterday, Autumn Ridge had given them a glimpse of summer; its vibrant flowers had bloomed and perfumed the air for a few hours, the air had soothed their sweat-damp skin after baking in the high sun, and Romy didn’t get weird looks for drinking her iced coffee.
(The girl who had warmed her bed after autumn took back over had seen her cuffed jeans and coffee and had approached her with a few of her own candied words, bringing the scent of caramel apples back to Romy’s tongue.)
If it had been snowing instead, Romy could have pictured Autumn Ridge gearing up for its first murder in nearly five decades much more easily. It looked like this: Lian, Romy, and Ezra standing outside the crime scene in fedoras and trench coats fluttering in the biting breeze, cigarettes creating an ever-present cloud that reflected the smog and constant cold-weather rain fog coiling over the cobblestone streets. They would adopt a transatlantic accent and talk too quick, like they had to force all their words out before something stopped their mouths for good—a stray bullet fired from the hip, a poisoning, a shove out of the fifth-story window.
She could reconcile the murder in that bone-deep winter noir. Not when she was just hours off of having to tie her deep red-burgundy hair off her neck to keep comfortable, even with her big ears blasting her too-warm dog heat into the atmosphere.
It wasn’t even like the summer of the Son of Sam—it wasn’t the deep heat of the city, where the slick of sweat on your skin like the noir film’s endless rain would drive you to madness enough to stab your neighbors just to get some relief, the blood spraying from their opened arteries less boiling than the syrupy humidity oozing in through every window opened futilely to coax the still, oppressive air to give up a whisper of a breeze. Maybe the blood sacrifice is what finally would have done it.
It all settled heavy in Romy’s stomach. Murder was for Outside; it was for In The City. Not here. Not like this.
Chloe had become the Black Dahlia in her mind; she had morphed from this victim to that one to the next, following the Zodiac, BTK, Ed Kemper—all the famous names she’d heard in her true crime podcasts that got the armchair psychologist in her theorizing.
So the other students could stay inside, huddled away to mourn or to fear; Romy had a purpose.
Ezra lived in the same dorm building as Chloe. Lian met her in the lobby, and Ezra brought them both upstairs as his guests: just one more person in the dorms who chose to huddle around their loved ones in this trying time, especially with the school’s administration still deciding its long-term course of action.
“Here, this is her floor,” he said.
As soon as Romy stepped into the shitty dorm hall, she existed in two places: now, as a graduate student working on her Master’s thesis, coming to these dorms to take on a murderer—and when she was eighteen, coming to these dorms for the first time, unsure and still faking most of her confidence. Could that version of herself have been the one in the graveyard? Would someone else have sat in Expresso Espresso and made a pact with their friends to find justice for her?
Ezra took her elbow and led her to the room. Lian paused practicing her signs to anchor her spell as Ezra dropped to his knees and pulled out a lock picking kit.
Romy almost laughed, a jittery bark bubbling up, but Ezra’s sheepish smile kept it at bay.
“I learned how to do this to impress girls,” he said.
“We’re very impressed,” Lian said. She could have used her magic to spring the tension mechanism, but she shared a look with Romy over Ezra’s head that showed they were indulging him; he might need to feel useful in this moment, if he’s the one who had to live here, in the same building as the dead girl. Her specter would hang over this place for years to come. Students would come up with ghost stories to haze freshies with, to use as all-important currency to trade around campus for clout, securing their places socially for the time they spent in Autumn Ridge.
The lock caught with a soft chunk and Ezra swung the door open; Lian caught the crime scene tape in a state of suspension, stuck in a pocket of its own time; they passed through the static-image of the tape and into the room.
Romy recognized the little glint in Lian’s eye, all black-brown in the witch lights she sent up to illuminate the room like the noon sun. That was the historian in her—the one that had existed even before Lushuwyth, the reason she had been with her mother on the dig and reached for the artifact Lushuwyth had been bound to in the first place—and it was interested in seeing a crime scene first hand. Normally, Lian had to experience them through podcasts or to read about them in forensics books (one of the bookcases still had two and a half shelves dedicated to explorations of body farms, forensic memoirs, and everything Caitlin Doughty and Mary Roach had ever written), but now she got to experience it for herself, outside of what she had absorbed in the possession and managed to recover.
“See? It’s not so bad to actually live through some experiences yourself instead of just relying on Gramps, yeah?”
This time, when Lian looked at Romy, it was with a startled blink.
“You shocked I can have a single ounce of insight?” Romy asked.
Lian knew that Romy protected her soft, creamy center by constructing impenetrable irony curtains; she also knew that Romy balked at receiving anything that could be interpreted as sincerity. So Romy wasn't mad; she was thankful for getting to keep her barriers up as they rifled through a dead girl's things.
The murder might not have happened here, but the air stank like pennies resting on the back of Romy’s tongue, blood and forensics sunken into the DNA of the room. Would it ever smell fresh and clean again? Or would there always be a phantom tang of spilled blood?
Or had her murderer come back here and let some part of her dying corpse reunite with her bedroom as the rest began the slow process of rotting up on the hill rolling off the foot of Applegate Mountain? Had they come here to find something? To clean off? To cover up?
The walls were hung with watercolor paintings; Chloe’s desk had cups of gray-brown rinse water dangerously close to coffee mugs. She had spent a lot of time painting the landscapes of Autumn Ridge, the golden-reds of the leaves broken up with cool-colored coats, wool hats, and little blue flowers that weren’t actually anywhere to be found in the village. The latest painting, never to be finished, was a blend of flowers—pinks, soft blues, smooth purples, all wrapped in long leaves and bundled stems. The petals were so delicate, nearly transparent in places, that Romy could just imagine running her fingertips over them and their fragile skins ripping; they would give off their light, dark scents blended with the green-herb of their stems, and Romy would be transported to her own kitchen, where she and Lian hung sprigs to dry, grew fresh herbs for cooking, and seasoned the cauldron for potions and for stews.
Chloe saw the fire in the chilly village and contradicted it with the warm-weather flowers drunk on the colors of the spring rains.
Romy wanted to sit, to ask Chloe about whether she made the connection, whether she saw the irony in the colors and the weather they thrived in, but she was dead. She couldn’t find irony in anything, even in a beautiful death, because nothing had been beautiful about this, had it?
“I modified a spell,” Lian said, “To highlight anything that doesn’t…belong.” Her hesitation implied that was a loose interpretation of what the spell actually did; Romy could only imagine what the literal meanings the runes she’d have woven together to create concrete meaning from abstract concepts actually held.
Lian started setting up, her eyes glowing brighter and brighter, as she focused. Any missed intention could blow the whole thing back on them—possibly with a literal explosion, or possibly with a twisted interpretation the magic itself made on its own, such as showing that they didn’t belong and giving them a permanent glow, or maybe even turning it around to make them invisible, ghosts trapped in the flesh.
So Romy checked her phone, leaning back against the wall, as Lian found the place where her focus would be unshakable.
GhostieGoo had left her a very nice message.
He had been a mutual on her personal Twitter before she even locked it, and he'd followed her adult Twitter and subbed to her OnlyFans only after asking if she was alright with it; he was always welcome to slide into her DMs. Never once had he been disrespectful, and never once had she seen his dick.
(More than once, she’d kind of wanted to.
But for some reason, for once in her life, she didn’t have the balls to ask him to send one, even if it was just sending him a well-placed eggplant.)
That lighting really makes your freckles stand out! You’re really beautiful :)
That’s all he sent. She’d come back to it later, when she could take her time with it, when she could allow it to wash over her and tighten up her chest, barking out a little sob after the reality of what she’d done and what she’d sworn to do really sank in, but before she had the freedom to engage in any catharsis, she put her phone away.
Lian settled a bowl of herbs and a few crystals on the floor, then lit a match. As the herbs burned, she worked her hands in soft, precise movements that caught the smoke in a pink bubble of her influence, letting it build up and fill, and then spread her arms. The bubble burst and the smoke flooded the room in a wave of pleasant-smelling heat. It wasn’t smothering, but Romy felt the magic woven into it tingling across her skin, bringing the cleansing and protection Lian had picked those herbs for, the focus and meditative calm coming secondary.
Then, with glowing hands, Lian started tracing out the runes to construct her sigils.
Her right hand flew through the air, constructing elaborate shapes with sharp angles and swooping curves that Romy couldn’t begin to comprehend, and her left she kept at her chest, her fingers crossing, straightening, curling, her wrist twisting this way or that, creating anchors around which the runes were built, adding deeper meaning to the sigils.
In the air, the pink shapes grew, sometimes transforming completely as Lian added deeper meaning with subtle distinctions, even just with the addition of one rune, with one swapped anchor.
The Arcana lived inside of Lian; Lushuwyth was a fraction of it that had found true sapience, a tatter of living magic ripped from the greater cloth still holding on by an umbilical thread. Each hand sign had been crafted to represent one simple concept as understood by the Arcane minds that had first begun construction of the Arcana, before it took on life of its own and grew beyond anything the Arcanists had ever hoped to achieve. This one meant Light; that one meant Circle. Lian’s force of will and her anchors imbued the signs with her interpretation of Light and Circle as she wove together instructions for the spell to follow.
Light the objects that do not belong in this room with a glowing circle.
It was not sign language; she could not just fingerspell words she didn’t know the sign for. But she had to connect the right subtle gestures in the right order for a speaker who did not care to help pick up the slack in their misunderstandings.
The Arcana was not a hostile force, but it required firm guidance or it might lash out, a force of nature with the balance upset. Lushuwyth wasn't good for a lot, apparently, but this was one thing he excelled at: guiding Lian to find the right symbols to bind with her will and build the spell she needed. So any fuckup was her own lack of focus or a mistake in the signs; Romy and Ezra were right to keep a little distant.
The large sigil glowed, full of elaborate little circles with pointy runes and larger concentric circles full of sharp points and lettering that hurt Romy’s eyes to look at.
Finally, the shapes dissipated and Lian dropped the witch lights. Glowing auras trickled into existence.
“What’s supposed to be there?” Ezra pointed at the desk.
Lian frowned. “It may be…an interpretation of the spell?” She flapped her hand dismissively, focused not on helping them look but on cracking the mystery of the glow around nothing at all.
Romy settled herself; the caffeine had washed from her system, leaving her tired but grounded back in reality, the jittery thoughts slowing so she could grasp and digest them. Despite the smear of chemicals in the air, the suggestion of blood that had spilled in the graveyard, Romy put a hand over her belly and took the deep, cleansing breaths that went back to her gymnastics days, before her legs got too long and gangly like a newly-dropped foal.
Ezra had his knees planted in the mattress, leaning over. “Look, there’s something lit up behind here.” He pressed his cheek into the wall, leaving oils and ear prints that Romy suspected might lead to an identification (if that episode of CSI wasn’t a total fabrication) but at least Ezra could excuse himself, saying he’d come to her dorm for homework or to hook up and dropped something, totally unrelated to this case at all. “It’s a phone.”
Ezra held it up, showing off his prize. The screen was cracked like she had only ever seen in memes, or like it had caught a bullet for its owner in the final tense scene of an action film. “The battery’s dead,” he said, showing the pathetic icon as he tried to push the buttons. With a shrug, Ezra tucked it into his pocket.
“We shouldn’t spend too much time here,” Lian said. “Even if the other students wouldn’t get involved, it would put them in a position where they have to put themselves at risk to avoid narcing.”
Romy sat at the desk. A chill shot down her spine and rebounded off her pelvis, raising the hairs on the back of her neck and all along her ears like raised hackles.
“I used to have the same desk when I was here,” she said. “In the dorms, I mean.” Not this room—she didn’t think she could handle that; the double-life projection playing through her mind was already too much to digest. Different floor, different problems. Lying to teachers about being sick when she missed a week and a half of classes, not being murdered.
Curious and trying to occupy her wandering mind in equal measure, Romy started going through some of Chloe’s things; her textbooks were spread across the top shelf of the desk, notebooks organized neatly by subject with the classroom and time slot written on the covers. Clever. Her drawers were organized; pens and pencils, colorful highlighters, notecards—she had it all. Even a little box of condoms next to the Band-Aids.
Romy opened the top drawer again, then the middle. “These aren’t the same size.”
Lian made an acknowledging, curious sound in her throat as she picked through the small closet.
“The drawers. This one is shallower than it should be. The bottom is deeper, but the one her pens are in? It’s like…half the size it should be.” Hesitant like Chloe might actually walk in at any second and catch them, Romy pressed on the bottom of the drawer; it wiggled. Just a little. Just enough.
She scooted the chair back and pulled the drawer all the way out, lifting it off the track, and tipped it upside down. The pens, pencils, colorful highlighters fell out in a noisy shower, but following them? A false bottom made of cheap particle board cut to size and a thick leather book. Romy stared at it for a few hard hummingbird beats of her heart—who hid books like this? Could it be black magic? Is this what got her killed?—before she touched it with gentle fingertips. There was no shock of protective magic, no buzz of warning wards, so she picked it up.
The leather smelled well-worn but it was buttery soft under her fingers; two crescent moons were embossed around a third moon stitched around a pretty blue stone, the edges embossed with Celtic knots and little filigrees like leaves and berries. She traced the stone, but it felt sleepy, like it knew its keeper had gone to an earth it would never know again. She flipped it open, skimming through the pages.
G is acting weird lately. I’m worried about him. I’m meeting him tonight in the Hills but I guess it’s a chance for me to tell him I’m done? Maybe if he sees I’m serious about him being a fucking freak and I want to leave his ass he’ll actually make a change. That sounds so shitty but where can you be shitty if not your diary. Or if he leaves me alone it’ll be a win-win and I won’t end up getting a call from Ghosted, which is pretty good.
“She knew him. Whoever killed her. She knew him. She knew him.”