Thursday Thousand: The Darkest Dawn

Welcome to the Thursday Thousand! Every week, on Thor’s Day, I will be posting a short story (hopefully) written in advance. The only parameter is that it be, at minimum, 1000 words long. It can be any genre, any length beyond that, and even contain mild cliffhangers! Why? Because some of these will turn into novels, let’s be honest here. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments!

Note: This may be the only short story ever that I’m content with a short story for now. I mean, yeah, I could write these characters into a novel, but I don’t necessarily want or need to. Also, this was very mildly inspired by We Were Liars by E. Lockhart in that you don’t know all the details until the end.

Nell tilted her head back, trying to decipher where smoke and sky bled into one another.  Despite the brilliance of the fire, despite the way it lit up their faces like they were wearing masks full of shadows, despite the white swirl of non-color at the very center and the rippling red that raced away into orange, despite the visible, grey smoke trickling off the edges of the flames—despite it all, when Nell’s eyes left the fire, when they looked up, all she could see was night.

The sky above was starless, thick clouds obscuring their shimmering light from the ink black stretch of space, and where the ash grey smoke became infinite black, Nell couldn’t tell.  The blackness of the sky cancelled out the blackness of the smoke.  It was all just night up there.

She dropped her chin back down, skipping past the furious fire, and around its edge to where Maureen was standing.

“Is everyone wearing gloves?” Maureen had asked, the first of them to speak after everything.  No one had answered verbally, just lifted their gloved hands.

Of course we are, Nell remembered thinking, it’s the dead of winter.

They were all wearing gloves.  Most of them had scarves wrapped around the lower half of their faces to shield their delicate mouths and noses, though most of the scarves had come loose in the middle of it all.  Nell was in her warmest jacket, and even Bree, who always pretended the cold didn’t bother her, had wrapped up in her thickest leather jacket, the zipper done all the way up to her chin.  Some of them were wearing boots.  A few hats.  Nell thought it was such a mundane and stupid question—is everyone wearing gloves—until the double meaning struck her.

Oh, she remembered thinking, and then again, ohhhh.

Maureen’s already hard face had tightened into a fierce expression.  Her dark eyebrows were drawn together, wrinkling her pale forehead.  Her endless brown hair, which Bree always twisted tiny braids into, was yanked up into a ponytail at the back of her head.  No strands fell from it, but a few ridges lined the crown of her head, like she hadn’t smoothed her fingers through it as she rifled her hair away and wrapped the elastic around.  Her shoulders hadn’t risen from their tense, angry line, and she’d plunged her gloved fists into her jacket pockets.

“We stay until it’s done.  Until it burns out,” she said as she looked over at Verne, who was holding a closed lighter in her hand.  Verne nodded, and that should have been that, but Maureen looked around the circle at each of them.

Verne, her tight curls in two little buns at the top of her head like Mickey Mouse ears.

Eloise, one of her hands clamped over her mouth, her big blue eyes shining.

Nell, directly across from her, hands loose at her sides, every part of her body forcefully relaxed, but wondering if they would notice if she slipped away into the night—she was wearing all black, and she was the darkest of all of them; maybe, like the smoke blending in with the night sky, they wouldn’t even see her go.

Priya, visibly shaking, her purple lipstick mouth clamped shut even as her teeth chattered.

And Bree, her eyes closed against the night sky, her head tilted back, her brown face relaxed.

They all nodded, one by one, and that was how they came to be here, standing before a raging fire that Nell suspected wouldn’t go out for hours still.  She wondered if Maureen would keep them here, this threat over their heads, when the sun started to rise, or if even she would see the danger in being out here in the daytime.

Maureen’s brown eyes started to shift to her, so Nell looked away, back to the fire.  She wished Bree were standing next to her, both of them huddled together against the cold.  She wished Eloise or Priya would shuffle closer, wished they could stand united before Maureen.  But each of the girls remained where they were in the circle.  They had taken a few steps back when the blaze was first lit, the overwhelming heat of the fire pursuing them back a few more once it grew in size.  Priya had quietly asked if they’d used too much propellant.

Maureen snapped at her to be quiet.

Eloise jerked at Nell’s right, like she meant to stride through the circle and to Priya, whose shaking turned into tears faster than Nell had thought possible.

Nell wondered what would happen to them after this, after everything.  There didn’t seem to be a universe where they were still friends, where they still met in the woods to practice rituals they’d spent all week secretly creating, where they still got hot chocolate from their favorite café and walked the empty town center while everyone was at the football game, where they still swapped crystals and books, where they still braided each other’s hair and sneaked out of each other’s houses and wound themselves so tightly into each other’s lives that, when it all happened, none of them quite felt the fissure crack open between them.

Nell felt it now.

As she looked around at them—Verne was staring, almost determinedly, into the fire; Eloise had stopped crying, and now just looked like she’d given up; Priya had her arms wrapped around herself, her gaze on her boots; and Bree, still serene, but a little shocked, too, like it was slowly dawning on her what they’d done—Nell didn’t see girls she was best friends with anymore.  She saw strangers, girls that had been sucked in by Maureen’s big, beautiful personality, girls that had been tangled together and told they were each other’s gravitational pull, girls that were coming unmoored with every passing crack of fire on wood.

Eventually, when the horizon started to stain itself the palest of blue at the very edge, Maureen shifted, the first time she’d moved all night.  “Eloise, you go first,” she said.

Eloise paused only half a second, her blue eyes flickering to Verne, who nodded, and then over at Priya, whose mouth started to twist.  As she turned away, Eloise looked at Nell, and Nell felt something in her echo.

Eloise was not a stranger.

Several minutes after Eloise’s footsteps had long since faded, Maureen said, “Priya.”

Priya didn’t pause.  Nell saw her look through the fire to Verne, and as Priya fled, her hand whispered across Nell’s arm.

Priya was not a stranger.

The sky was beginning to lighten with gold when Maureen said, “Verne, be quick.”

Verne left, as well, her exhale long and heavy as she swept past Nell, an exhale full of understanding and secrets and magic.

Verne was not a stranger.

And then, it was just the two of them.  Nell lifted her gaze to stare at Maureen, waiting.  The sky was still mostly dark, still mostly night, but dawn was creeping on them fast, and Nell lived the furthest from the woods.  Finally, long after Verne had gone, Maureen nodded.  “I’ll clean up with Bree,” Maureen said.

Nell glanced at the fire before she left.

She walked through the forest, away from the fire, and back toward her home.  There was only one clear path out of the forest, and though she knew shortcuts, she took the path.  She didn’t hurry, too afraid the sound of a snapping twig would somehow travel back to Maureen, and she would know what her best friends had planned as soon as they became strangers.  Nell walked, and she walked, and she walked, until she came to the edge of the forest, and even then, though she could see Priya’s purple lipstick and Verne’s embroidered denim jacket and Eloise’s blue eyes, Nell didn’t run.

As she came up to them, it was to find them in silence, their gazes trained on her.

“Let’s go to my house,” Nell whispered.  Her house was always the safest option.  Her mother loved each of the girls like they were her own daughters, though she’d never quite seemed to figure out Maureen, which was probably why they went to Nell’s so infrequently.  But now, it was just the four of them, and no one disagreed.  They turned as one and left the forest behind, marched across the street, and plunged into the wildflowers on the other side.  There was a path here, too, and they stayed the path, not wanting to disrupt the flowers and give Maureen any hints.

It was a long walk, and by the time they finally came out of the wildflowers and onto the winding road that led to Nell’s house, day had risen in earnest.  Eloise made the tiniest noise as she started to speak, but Verne shushed her.  “Not yet,” Priya agreed in the barest whisper.  They kept on in silence, though their steps started to quicken now that they were on solid ground.  They were so close to somewhere safe, somewhere far from Maureen.

When they finally crested the last hill before Nell’s house, they broke into a run in unison.  They picked up speed as they came down the hill until they were in an all-out sprint, their breaths loud and their feet pounding against the pavement, scarves swinging and hands sweating inside their gloves.  They ran as Eloise’s tears started to prick at her eyes again.  They ran as Priya’s purple mouth opened in a gasp of relief when they saw Nell’s mother standing in the open doorway.  They ran as Verne yanked the buttons open on her jacket.  They ran until they stumbled through the gate leading up to Nell’s house, until Nell crashed up the stairs, until Julianne caught her flying daughter in her arms.

“What happened?” Julianne asked as Verne marched past her and into the house, as Eloise sank onto the stairs and started sobbing, as Priya pulled her back upright and dragged her out of the open.

Only when they were all inside, when they were safe, when they were beyond where Maureen could reach them, did Nell say, “She killed her, mom.  She hit her in the head with a rock.  She made us burn her body.”

Saying the words cracked that echo Nell had felt when each of the girls let her know they stood by her.  She wrenched out of Julianne’s arms, clamored into the house, and made a beeline for the kitchen sink, where she threw up.  She stayed there, her arms shaking and her whole body ice cold like she hadn’t stood in front of a pyre for the last several hours, until the front door closed, and then Nell pushed away from the sink, wiped her gloved hand across her mouth, and turned around.

Eloise was collapsed on the sofa, Priya wrapped around her.  Verne was at the window, the curtain twitched aside a little as she looked out.  Julianne was sprinkling salt along the bottom edge of the door.  When she was finished, she clapped her hands, straightened, and said, “Okay, start from the beginning.  And be very specific.  Dark magic is not something to be messed with.”

“It wasn’t magic,” Verne said as she let the curtain fall back in place, “It was human brutality.”

“We were supposed to be casting a circle,” Priya said quietly, “Maureen said she would lead.”

“She always leads,” Eloise snarled before she pushed out of Priya’s arms.  “It wasn’t any different than every other time.  You said this would be bad.”  She gestured at Julianne.  “You warned us.  You said you felt something dark in her.”

“It’s not your fault,” Julianne began.

“Of course not,” Nell said as she came over to the sofa, back to her best friends, her witches.  “None of us murdered Bree.  Maureen did.  And I think it’s high time we did something about her.”

“Do you mean—” Verne started uneasily.

“No,” Nell cut her off, “But she’s a dark witch.  We’ve got five light ones standing in this room.  She may be powerful, but she can’t overcome a coven.”

“We’re not—” Priya said, and then stopped.  She looked up at Nell.  “Okay,” she said immediately, “I’m in.”

“Me too,” Eloise said, “If you lead.”

Julianne smiled.

Verne shrugged.  “Alright,” she said, “Let’s do this.”

“For Bree,” Nell said, and they all agreed.

They had been best friends once, girls tied together by their center, by Maureen, by the force that she wielded, by the power she commanded.  But they had watched Maureen heft a rock up from the ground and strike Bree in the back of the head, all because Bree asked if they could do things a little differently this time.  They had become strangers briefly, girls unmoored and set adrift from each other.  But in the face of all that night, with the smoke bleeding seamlessly into the starless sky, they had come together again, moths drifting toward a light.

Nell had never liked using fire.  It felt too unpredictable, too consuming.  That, and she’d always worked better with water.  They were incomplete like this—Maureen had always been strongest with fire, Verne and Bree with air, Eloise with water, and Priya with earth.  But it didn’t matter.  Maureen was one witch.  They were five.

“Okay,” Nell said as Julianne went to put on the kettle for tea, “Let’s get started.”

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