With dirt still under her nails and smudging the knees of her jeans, Gwen wasn’t feeling like her best self next to the radiant corpse before her.
Nicky’s curls, perfectly preserved by the lack of breeze six feet under, splayed and contrasted beautifully against the chrome of the table; her pale skin hadn’t begun to show the least discoloration. Gwen had made it a point to get to her as soon as possible, to take advantage of the still-soft soil that wouldn’t have had a chance to set, but, she thought, running her thumb along the bottom of Nicky’s MAC Ruby Woo-painted lip, it may have soothed her ego to give the girl a chance to rot. Just a bit.
Any delay would have just dampened the effect of this particular incantation, Gwen reasoned, and wiped the small line of lipstick that had come off on her thumb onto Nicky’s blouse. She reached for the gallon Ziploc bag full of crystals that she had brought from home. These and the candles were the most essential elements of the process. Less so: the paste of wild strawberries, silt, and rat’s blood. While it wasn’t strictly necessary for the spell to work, it would help to ease the transition between the gummy membrane dividing the living world from the dead one, and Gwen thought it lent the proceedings a nice, atmospheric quality.
Rummaging through the bag for the right size of quartz, Gwen reflected on her somewhat limited experience with necromancy. Dead house plants had made for good practice but presented only a small challenge given their relatively simple chromosome structures. A few upended bees she’d found on the back porch had, too, revived quite nicely, and so had the squirrel Evan’s dog left in the mudroom. Even without its hind legs. But Nicky was going to be different. At least, she assumed she would be. To get what she needed, Gwen would need Nicky to come back clean, with faculties and memory intact, and to be honest, she wasn’t sure whether that worked with humans. The plants had certainly not been forthcoming.
And they, Gwen thought grimly, centering a large obsidian on Nicky’s clavicle, may have in simple fact started responding better to the new fertilizer she and Evan had found at the Chestnut Creek Farmer’s Market.
She unscrewed the jar lid and dipped her finger into the paste she’d prepared, using it to paint an inverted cross on Nicky’s forehead. Such soft skin. She then lit each of the twelve candles arranged around the body, pausing to straighten the bent wick of the one by Nicky’s feet. Surveying her work, she thought things looked pretty good. Decidedly occult. This was going to go fine.
Necromancy is straightforward. The concept is much like any other transportation spell: Object is in Location A; you want it to be in Location B. The respective locations being the two different realms of existence notwithstanding, that type of magic doesn’t require much calculation or finesse because the formula itself isn’t that subtle. To enchant someone’s mind or to charm the vacuum to operate itself based on its own observations of dust and lint build-up would take a more dexterous power than bringing Nicky back to life would, but Gwen had her anxieties all the same. So much rested on getting this right.
Facing north, putting her on the lefthand side of Nicky’s body, Gwen began reciting the (Latin, naturally) incantation. Just going off her experience with the squirrel, she knew she’d have to chant for a while, and she had allowed for extra time in case there was a correlation between that and body mass. The disappointingly young and chipper mortician had given her, in exchange for a wad of cash, until morning.
The candles flickered, which was encouraging. Gwen kept incanting and, and despite her mind wandering to Evan and his vague plans for the evening, tried to stay focused. What did a guys’ night really entail, anyway? The innocent “get a pizza, play some Xbox,” had not sounded as convincing as it could have, but the opportunity to have a night alone with Nicky had been too enticing for Gwen to question it any further. Still, was Evan not technically in mourning though? Is that what guys did, repress their grief via virtual football matches and bloodshed, and pepperoni, or were there more sinister ways Evan intended to drown his sorrows?
Gwen thought she saw a flinch, but it was probably a trick of the light.
His oafish friends would certainly have no scruples helping him if that was his goal. She’d never liked Dan, or Danny, or Steve all that much. No, she didn’t like what they did to Evan, is what it was. She didn’t like how they made him feel. The nights out and frequent Sunday mountain biking trips always had this tinge of obligation to them, didn’t they, like Evan would have rather stayed with her but felt compelled to go, felt like he owed them his attention. And far be it for them to include her, either, not when it was all about “quality time with the guys” and “doing my own thing for a minute” and “why don’t you knit some more stuff for your Etsy store while I’m out, that’ll be fun!” Yes, a pile of six sweaters, eighteen scarves, and a custom-ordered bed quilt she kept meaning to ship to New Jersey was a riot in the face of her and Evan’s intimate bond being fractured every minute they spent apart.
“Moww ffeels bike Nobocaine.”
Gwen jumped. One of Nicky’s eyelids had fluttered open, and the bloodshot eye under it was peering up at her.
“Excuse me?” she asked. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Eye mowwf, ib feels bike Nobocaine,” said Nicky. “Bins and beedles.”
“Oh, well, yeah that makes sense,” Gwen replied. “You haven’t used your mouth in a little while. I’m sure the feeling with come back to it in a minute.”
“How are you feeling, otherwise? Do you know where you are?”
“Yes. Sort of. Sorry I mean, you will be again, but I just had a few questions to ask you, if you don’t mind.”
“Do you remember Evan Harris, by any chance?”
Nicky’s other eyelid slid half-way open, and she sniffed.
“Eban? Yeah, Eban ib my effs. My ecffffs. My ex.”
“That’s right,” Gwen said. “You and he dated about two years ago, right? For eight months?”
“Maybe sebben? I gueff eight. Yeah. Eban. Whab about Eban?”
“Well, I was sort of hoping you could give me some insight into why you two broke up. You’re the last serious relationship he had, before-- oh, right, so I’m with Eban, I mean Evan, now and things are going really well actually, but he hasn’t super wanted to talk about his past relationships that much. And then we heard about your crash, and I could tell he was upset but he still didn’t really want to talk about you. And I just think it’s so important if we’re going to be able to work as a couple that we know stuff about each other, especially past relationship stuff, and since you were his last, like, real girlfriend, I thought you’d know more or be able to tell me what happened between you guys so that I can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes.”
Nicky’s half-open eye looked askance at one of the candles burning next to her head. Weakly, she cleared her throat.
“I’m sorwy,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Gwen,” Gwen said. “I’m Gwen, I’m Evan’s girlfriend.”
“Mmkay. Gwwen, I think it’s important to rememmer that everyone is different, every relationship is different, and--”
“No I know,” Gwen said. “I just feel like, I don’t know. Maybe we’ve had some distance between us? Lately? And I’m sure that I can fix it and that we’ll be right back on track, but I think part of making sure that happens is knowing what has gone wrong before, you know? So I can head off those types of problems. And just really focus on us.”
“I don’t know whab to dell you, exactly. Sometime people just break up. And there izzn a problem, per say, there’s just a lack of compat- compatab- of a fit between the two of you. Eban and I, we stobbed having any real fun, so it didn’t seem worth going on with.”
“I’m sorry, but that cannot possibly be it,” Gwen said. “Don’t fidget, the crystals will fall off.”
“Izz it! Why can’t that be twue?”
“Because Evan is like, such a great guy. I mean why would you voluntarily give him up unless there was something major that happened? Like did someone cheat, did you fight about family stuff, or--”
“Jesus Chwist,” Nicky mumbled.
“Look I have to know, okay? I dragged you all the way back here so that I could save my relationship and I’d appreciate it if you could be a little more honest about what happened between you guys. If it was nothing, why doesn’t Evan talk about you much then?”
“Oh, I bon’t know,” said Nicky, who had managed to bend one of her elbows. “Maybe he sensed that you bidn’t actually want to hear all about his exes because you’re actually insane and would be this insane, jealous bitch about it?”
“I’m insane?” Gwen huffed. “I’m the jealous one? You’re dead! You’re dead and you won’t help me because even dead you just want him all to yourself, don’t you--”
Gwen’s question would go unanswered, however. Nicky, with considerable force given how her muscles must have atrophied, had elbowed one of the candles off of the table. The flame was squashed out as it hit the floor, and she was dead again.
“Fuck!” Gwen hissed.
Would it be worth it to try another time? All the books had implied this was a one-shot sort of thing, and even if she were able to, Nicky had been so clearly uncooperative and vindictive. She couldn’t imagine getting much more out of her.
Frustrated, Gwen pinched out the remaining candles and started, with great force, tossing the crystals back into the Ziploc. Now what? She had already scoured the memorials of Nicky’s Facebook and Instagram pages for any sign of anything she might possibly be able to use. Old pictures had confirmed no more than she already knew: Even with Nicky, Evan liked the Dodgers, Evan liked doing that thing where you make a duck beak out of two Pringles in your mouth, Evan liked going to the farmer’s market. That was the problem with these social media sites-- all they did was give you this superficial, curated view of someone’s life. What you wanted was answers.
As per their agreement, the mortician showed up to help Gwen move Nicky back into the trunk of her Corolla. Though they had settled on sunrise, in truth, he’d showed up just a tad earlier, using the spare minutes to double-check his hair in his rearview mirror. It was on the fifth double-check that he had glimpsed the back door swing open and hopped swiftly out of his van. A little maneuvering, and the task was complete.
“You don’t need any help getting her back in the ground, do you?” he asked, resting his arm against the lid of the trunk.
“Nope,” said Gwen, slamming the lid down and forcing him to jump back a step.
“Well,” he said, with a laugh. “If you’re sure. How about-- would you want to grab a coffee? Once you’re all done, I mean. Start the day off right?”
Gwen brushed past him to open the driver’s side door.
“I have a boyfriend.” She climbed into the car and slammed the door shut.
The mortician watched her work to back her way out of the cramped parking space and drive away, a less dramatic exit than she had likely desired. Only when she turned onto the main road did he notice that she’d left her shovel propped against his van; they had moved it to make space for the body.
For a split second, he thought to run after her. But she was past the second light now, and the gesture, however noble, seemed futile. He smiled slightly, and nodded to himself.
She would come back for it.
Grace Arenas received her MFA in poetry from the University of Montana in 2017. Her chapbook, “they’ll outlive you all,” was published in late 2017 with Dancing Girl Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Virga, Shenandoah, Theta Wave, and others. She currently lives and teaches in Boston. Find her on Twitter: @ExtravaStanza.