Gemma Varnom writes YA and adult fantasy often influenced by fairy tales, folklore and the Gothic. She blogs at www.gemmavarnom.com and spends far too much time on Twitter, where she goes by the oh-so-imaginative handle of @gemmavarnom.
Kyra walks fast, darting between the headstones, her footsteps silent on the rain-softened earth. The cemetery is left unlit at night and there are a hundred obstacles to trip her but she doesn’t dare light up her phone. She made her way here in shadow; clothing dark, hood up, shrinking away from every streelight beam. No one can know she’s here.
She finds the stone marked AISLING O’RIORDAN, a modest marble thing no higher than her knee. The flowers left at its base are battered by rain but they’re fresh, replaced every day.
Kyra hates the sight of them. Aisling always slept with her laptop glowing in the corner of her bedroom and one of her ‘relaxing’ playlists on a quiet loop; the thought of her, alone in the dark and the silence, turns Kyra’s stomach. What good will flowers do for her now?
She sits, cross-legged before the headstone. The wind bites at her fingers and she curls them inside her sleeves. She waits.
Soon enough it begins again, soft and pleading:
‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?
When shall we meet again?’
It started at the funeral, as the first clod of earth dropped with a gut-wrenching thud onto the coffin; a song that made her ears ring and her chest hum as though it came from within her own body. The tune is only half-familiar but she’d know the voice anywhere.
“Aisling?” she whispers. “Ais’?”
The words repeat in a dim echo, in time with the drumming of Kyra’s heart. ‘When shall we meet again?’
She reaches out to touch the headstone, cold and damp from the night air, and her hand is steady. “I’m with you,” she answers. “I’m here.”
* * *
Kyra had only ever had the news of a death broken to her once before, when her gran slipped away quietly, tucked up in bed in her nursing home. Her grief then had been a gentle, grey kind of sadness, like being wrapped in a cloud heavy with rain.
But since Aisling, since the cardiac arrest no one saw coming and that awful, stilted phone call from Mrs O’Riordan’s sister, the world feels spiked and sharp. Her tears are needles, her breath scrapes against her lungs as though she’s been outside in winter without her inhaler. She feels as if her body has been punched full of holes, letting in a bitter, stinging cold.
She isn’t even sure if it’s grief or guilt.
When Aisling died Kyra hadn’t seen her for eight days. Eight days of silence, eight days she could have had with her best friend if she hadn’t ruined everything with those terrible words. She’d held them in for months, feeling them press at the seam of her lips, but that day they spilled out before Kyra could pull them back.
I’m in love with you, she’d said, her voice clumsy and quivering. My head, my heart, they’re full of you. Please, Ais’, you have to understand. You have to.
Aisling had been kind about it. She hadn’t tried to laugh it off or pretend it hadn’t happened. She’d hugged Kyra, so tight it almost hurt, and promised things would never get weird between them. But Kyra knew it was already too late.
So she’d avoided her; ignored her texts, muted her across social media. Ghosting, they call it. Kyra was probably snivelling over her broken heart the moment Aisling’s gave out.
And she won’t forgive herself. She won’t go through ‘the grieving process’. Even the thought of it horrifies her. The only thing stronger than the guilt is the want, like a constant ache in her entire body, and she couldn’t make it stop even if she wanted to.
Because Aisling and Kyra fit. They work. They hate all the same books. They both hurl themselves full-force into the same fandoms. They’ll each happily eat all the things the other will pick off a pizza. They know each other’s moods, anticipate each other’s reactions. Whenever Kyra is upset Aisling always texts, as though she’s set up some kind of Bat-signal that lights up outside her window whenever Kyra needs her. When Aisling takes her hand Kyra marvels at the way her friend’s shell-pale skin makes her own seem darker and richer; the way hers makes Aisling’s glow as though they’re holding a handful of moonlight pressed between their palms.
If she doesn’t have Aisling, if she can’t see her, laugh with her, be close to her, then nothing will ever make sense again.
She keeps the last message Aisling ever sent, less than two hours before she died. She reads it over and over, even though she knows it by heart:
I know you’re avoiding me and I understand why. But you’re still my best friend and I can’t function without you, you doughnut. So please don’t leave me alone for long, OK? A xxx
But Kyra did leave her alone, for those eight wasted days. She’ll never do it again, not when Aisling is calling for her.
‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?’
She won’t let her down.
She won’t let her go.
* * *
It’s an old song, one Aisling’s grandmother taught her; a sad, lilting thing about a man whose lover died. He sat and mourned at her grave every night for a year and a day until her ghost appeared, unable to move on because his grief held her fast.
Would she do that, she wonders? Mourn a twelvemonth and a day at the grave of Aisling O’Riordan?
Yes, she thinks. She would.
She’s certain she would.
* * *
Kyra wakes, stretched out on the soft earth, her head resting against Aisling’s stone. The sun is half-risen and her phone is vibrating in her pocket. She checks the time; less than half an hour before her mum is due home from her shift. She scrambles to her feet, muscles stiff with cold, and brushes the dirt from her clothes.
She’s spent five nights in a row here now. Aisling’s voice is clearer at her graveside; soothing and stirring all at once. When Aisling sings, the tears stop and the tightness in Kyra’s chest eases. Aisling needs her. They need each other.
She crosses the road and walks past the row of shops opposite the cemetery, most still closed and shuttered. The newsagent on the corner is decked out ready for Hallowe’en, the window display full of plastic pumpkins and rubber bats on strings. There’s even a skeleton in a sparkly top hat.
Aisling had taken Hallowe’en very, very seriously. So seriously she’d insisted on calling it Samhain and left offerings of food outside her door for the Aes Sidhe and had a stringent set of rules regarding the kind of costumes that were and were not acceptable. Last year Connor had shown up to her party dressed in a cheap Lycra Deadpool costume and she’d refused to let him join the others until she’d shredded the thing with scissors, covered him in makeup from her theatrical ‘corpse’ palette and turned him into ‘Undeadpool’.
“You’ve got to dress as something scary, you absolute doorbell,” she’d said, applying a sickly grey-green to the now-visible parts of his face. “Spirits and demons and Sidhe are walking the earth tonight. You have to wear a disguise so they’ll take you for one of them, so they don’t see you as a threat. That’s the whole point. It’s the only way to stay safe.”
Kyra glowers at the jaunty skeleton on Aisling’s behalf.
She spins round to see Connor, doing his awkward little half-walk-half-jog towards her. He’s heading to work, his green Caffè Society apron sticking out under his coat, and he’s clutching a small bunch of flowers. She hasn’t seen him since the funeral, hasn’t replied to his barrage of ‘you ok?’ texts, but right now she doesn’t have the strength to feel guilt over that too.
“You here for…?” He lifts the flowers and waves them in the direction of the cemetery.
“Just leaving,” she tells him, hoping he won’t notice the damp on her jacket, the dirt embedded in the lines of her palms. “I’m due in college early today, so…”
“I get it. You… you wanted to be alone.”
Kyra wonders if Connor ever felt shut out when the three of them were together, but he never seemed to mind Kyra and Aisling’s closeness. Connor will lay flowers on her grave but he won’t feel the loss of her like a wound that won’t close. Connor is the kind of friend you talk to about music and Game of Thrones endgame theories. Aisling is… more.
Aisling is everything.
“Bit inappropriate, isn’t it?” he says and she panics before realising he’s talking about the window display. “I mean, a skeleton?”
Kyra shrugs. “Suppose.” She’s barely listening. Her head is still full of Aisling’s voice, like an old vinyl record stuck on a loop. ‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?’ In her dreams Aisling is cold and frightened, reaching for her with an outstretched hand that Kyra is too far away to grasp–
“It’ll be so weird without her.” Connor nods towards the display again. “Hallowe’en.”
“Samhain,” Kyra corrects.
“Shit, yeah, sorry. She’d kill me for that.” He looks down, the cellophane around the flowers crackling in his grip. “I was thinking… Do you maybe want to come round to mine? On the night, I mean. Just, so we’re not sitting on our own feeling awful. We could watch The Babadook.”
Kyra’s lips twist and she’s not sure if it’s a smile or a grimace. “Her favourite.”
“Like a tribute kind of thing. I’ll even sit through Lady-Ghostbusters after, in her honour.”
She hates and envies that Connor can think like this. That he’s at the point of ‘tributes’ and ‘in her honour’ and watching films where people die right in front of your eyes.
“Yeah,” she says. “Maybe.”
She turns and leaves without another word. Her mum isn’t home when she returns and she showers quickly before catching the bus to college.
She thinks she can still smell the earth on her skin. She’s glad of it.
* * *
There are moments between the shivers and the panic and the bouts of crying when she can still think clearly, when she can see herself from the outside and observe how ridiculous all this really is. Is she really so lost, so lonely, so very far gone to hang all her hopes on one girl? There must be others out there, other fierce, kind, dazzling girls that could be her whole world, one day, maybe.
But ‘one day, maybe’ isn’t enough. Not now. She knows what she wants, who she wants. She knows they’re meant to be together.
She has to hope.
She has to try.
* * *
The more she hears those sung words the more they sound like a plea, like a cry for rescue. Kyra never really believed in ghosts, not like Aisling did, but she knows the answer now.
Tomorrow is Samhain, when spirits walk the earth. Kyra doesn’t know how to summon a spirit, or if such a thing is even possible. All she has to bring Aisling back to her is her grief, her hope, her desperate need.
‘When shall we meet again, sweetheart?’
Tomorrow, she whispers back. I’ll come tomorrow.
* * *
The wind is stronger now and Kyra feels a few drops of rain spatter onto her shoulders and the hood of her coat. Aisling always said the air felt different on Samhain, as though she could feel the boundaries between worlds growing thin.
She knows she can’t keep doing this. Sooner or later her mum will find out where she goes every night and she’ll be locked in the house and probably sent to some useless counsellor who won’t understand.
It has to be tonight.
A few intrepid trick-or-treaters are still out; two little girls flanking their dad, one a fluorescent green T-rex, the other a rather cute Maleficent, both splashing through puddles and rattling pumpkin-shaped buckets full of sweets.
As she turns the corner past the newsagent, where the skeleton now sports glittery sunglasses as well as his top hat, a figure steps out of the shadows, blocking her path.
“Will you ever answer my texts?”
Connor’s voice is angry but there’s only concern on his face; that little vertical worry-crease between his brows stark as a scar in the low light.
“Sorry,” she says, as lightly as she can manage. “I’ve been… you know.”
“Yeah, I do know, actually. Adam from work told me his sister saw you in the cemetery at one a.m. last night. She said you were lying on her grave. Sleeping on it. She nearly called the police. What the fuck, Kyra?”
“Keep your voice down.” She glances around, making sure no one else is listening. “I fell asleep. I didn’t go there to sleep.”
“Ah, OK, that’s not weird at all then. And was that the only time?”
She turns her head, avoiding his gaze.
When he speaks again his voice is unsteady. “You’re going there now, aren’t you? Kyra, what–”
“I don’t have to include you in everything I do, Con’.”
She sets off at a fast walk but he’s only a step behind.
“You’re there every night, aren’t you?” he says, plucking at her sleeve like a little kid. “Your mum told my mum she’s hardly seen you since the funeral. She thought you were round at mine. That we were helping each other through this. Talking and stuff.”
“If I want to spend time at her grave it doesn’t affect you, does it?”
“Well, yeah, actually, it does. I’m worried about you.” He steps in front of her, forcing her to stop. “D’you think I don’t miss her? Not the same way you do, but… I get it. She was my friend too.”
He sniffs loudly, tears shining in his eyes and the anger sparks in Kyra’s gut. Is that it? she thinks. Is that all you’ve got for her?
“And I get that losing someone can mess a person up,” he goes on. “But you can’t keep doing stuff like this. I’m just saying, if it gets… If you want to talk about her or just, I don’t know, shout at someone, you can come and shout at me. You don’t have to… to grieve all on your own.”
He struggles with the word ‘grieve’, as though the word has turned to splinters in his mouth. He doesn’t know what it really means, what it really feels like.
“You don’t understand,” she snaps.
“I want to. If you’d just–”
“Get out of my way.”
“You don’t understand. You never did. You were always a spare part, Con’. Take a hint and fuck off.”
He gapes at her as though he doesn’t recognise her and she shoves him away, hard. She can’t care, not about Connor, not now. The only thing that matters is Aisling’s voice, scared and small, calling out for her help.
She sprints into the cemetery, barely needing to look where she’s going any more. She stops in front of Aisling’s headstone, breathless and trembling. It has to be now.
“Ais’?” she calls into the dark, heart clattering against her chest. “Aisling?”
She listens, waiting for that voice to answer.
“Come back to me. It’s Samhain, Ais’. You always believed it. Come back!”
Nothing. The cemetery is silent. The singing has stopped.
She’s too late.
“Ais’,” she whispers, burying her face in her hands. “Please.”
“Jesus, what does a girl have to do to get a bit of sleep around here?”
She looks up and all the breath leaves her lungs at once. There, grinning wildly, one foot resting on her own headstone, stands Aisling O’Riordan.
She’s wearing the dress she was buried in; a deep blue wrapover thing her mum picked out. Kyra remembers thinking if Aisling were looking down she’d be preparing to go full Paranormal Activity on Mrs O’Riordan in revenge. This is, after all, the girl who went to her Year Eleven prom in jeans, Converse and a t-shirt with Amy Winehouse as Wonder Woman on the front.
Aisling spreads her arms wide and waggles her fingers. “Spirits walk abroooad.”
“You always said that,” Kyra says, tears spilling down her cheeks. “And it’s really true.”
“Are you OK?”
Trust Aisling, ghostly Aisling with her wonderful, wasted heart, to ask her that.
“I… I really hate that dress on you.” It comes out half-laugh, half-sob.
Aisling tugs at a hem. “The state of it. I am risen from my grave! I should look like a dread imperatrix of the night, not… not Zombie Kate Middleton.”
“Ais’… How are you even here?”
She drops the fabric and stares right at Kyra, her eyes pale as moonstones. “You, you doughnut.”
“I was trying to sleep, all peacefully like a good little dead girl should, but you just kept showing up here and calling my name, going on and on and on…” She smiles, her teeth glinting.
“You heard me too?”
“Every word.” The smile drops off her face and suddenly she looks like she’s about to cry. She probably can’t cry any more, Kyra thinks, but her voice cracks all the same. “Kyra, there was nothing – for what felt like forever, there was nothing but the dark and the cold – and then there was you. You heard my voice. You called me back. You held onto me.”
“You said not to leave you alone.”
Aisling looks blank.
“In your text.”
“Kyra…” Her features crumple into what Connor calls her ‘Deathly Hallows Part 2 face’. She’d cried for ten solid minutes in the cinema. People had stared.
“Ais’, I missed you so much.”
“Bet I missed you more.”
“Bet you didn’t. I slept on your grave.”
“I know. I was there with you, every night. Thought you were going to freeze to death, you lunatic.”
Kyra blinks at the word. ‘Lunatic’ is on the unwritten but very much official list of Words And Phrases Guaranteed To Make Aisling O’Riordan Lecture You At Length About Good Allyship. Once, some sweaty bloke on the train with a can of lager in his hand had called Kyra ‘a coloured’ and Aisling had harangued him so relentlessly he’d got off three stops early.
Still, she thinks, your priorities probably shift a bit when you’re dead.
“I can’t believe you did that for me,” Aisling says, her voice too quiet, too humble.
Kyra can only stare. “You can’t? Really?”
“I knew you…” She ducks her head and tucks a loose strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. “I mean I knew, but I never… I never thought anyone would care about me like that.”
“Well, I did. I do.”
The last time Kyra told Aisling how she felt her voice and hands shook so hard she could barely speak. Now, standing in a graveyard in a shower of rain so fine it feels like mist, inches from her best friend’s ghost, Kyra feels braver than she ever has in her life.
Aisling scuffs a shoe – sensible, mumsy, all wrong – into the earth. “I’m so sorry I missed it. You, I mean. Us. I’m sorry I missed us.”
Something sharp twists in Kyra’s stomach and she can’t stop the bitterness burning through her words, making them brittle. “You didn’t want us.”
“I got it wrong, Ky’. I should have said yes to you. I mean it’s… it’s you. I got it wrong and I’m so, so sorry.”
She looks like she truly means it, like they’ve both been hurting in the exact same way, and Kyra can’t help but soften again. “Can I… can I touch you?”
“I think so.”
Kyra steps forward, reaching out. When their hands touch Aisling gasps.
“You’re so warm,” she hisses, pale eyes wide. “You’re like a furnace.”
“Is it too much?”
“No! No, it’s…” She tugs sharply on Kyra’s hand, pulling her in until they’re wrapped around each other. Aisling is so cold it’s like hugging a block of ice but she’s solid and she’s here and Kyra doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to let her go.
“Ais’?” Her voice is muffled in Aisling’s hair and her fingers grip the material of that awful dress until she feels it crumple inside her fists.
“I’m not… I’m not OK. Nothing’s OK. Nothing’s right without you.”
“I know.” Aisling’s hand moves from her neck to the back of her head, running over her rain-damp hair. Where Kyra’s touches are desperate, grasping, Aisling’s are gentle and comforting. They’ve always been like this, balancing one another out. They fit. They work. Why couldn’t Aisling see that before? “It’s all right.”
“But… it’s just for tonight and–”
“Ssh.” Aisling strokes her hair with freezing fingers and Kyra shivers, leaning into the touch. “I should have kissed you,” Aisling whispers. “Before. God, I really wish–”
“Kiss me now.”
The force of her own words startles her. She’s never been the one to demand, the one to decide. It’s always been Aisling grabbing her by the hand and pulling her along. When they’d played Truth or Dare as kids, Kyra had always been too afraid to pick Dare; Aisling had picked it every time.
But now Aisling looks ashamed and the wrongness of it hits Kyra like a blow. “I’m… I’m cold, Kyra. I’m literally rotting under your feet. If this is… if it’s too weird, I–”
Kyra can’t bear it. She leans in, taking over, taking control. Aisling’s breath smells of earth and decay but Kyra doesn’t care. Her lips are cold as clay and they’re not supple and pliable the way living lips are, but they respond and it’s enough. It’s everything.
When she breaks the kiss she can taste the salt of her own tears. “I wish you could stay.”
“I can.” Aisling cups Kyra’s face between her hands and looks more serious than Kyra has ever seen her. “Kyra, I can. If you want me to.”
Kyra covers Aisling’s hands with her own and pulls them down, clasping them between her beating heart and Aisling’s still one, and there is moonlight between their palms. “How?”
“You love me enough to keep me here. You can save me, right now.”
Kyra can barely breathe. She feels her blood tingle as though her veins are full of sparks, as though she could reach out and give Aisling her life back with just one electric touch.
“But it has to be what you want most.” Aisling’s eyes are bright with hope now, fixed on Kyra’s own. “Do you really want me to stay? You… you have to say it, Kyra. You have to say it and mean it.”
“Yes.” Kyra can’t get the words out fast enough. “Yes, of course I want you to stay. I want that more than anything.”
There’s a moment of silence, of perfect stillness, then Aisling leans forward, resting her forehead against hers. Her stale breath mingles with Kyra’s as she whispers: “Thank you.”
“That’s it?” Kyra asks. “That’s all?”
Aisling stretches up on tiptoe and presses soft kisses along Kyra’s temple, punctuating her words. “It’s enough. Yes. Thank you.”
“But how can you–?”
“Oh, you should really have worked it out by now.”
“The kiss was a risk,” she murmurs, her lips pressing the words into Kyra’s skin. “I thought it might be too much. But you really are in deep, aren’t you? Poor kind girl. Poor warm girl.”
“You want to believe it so desperately. That she could love you as you love her.”
“I… I don’t…”
“But I know her, you see. She and I have been close these past days, so close you would envy me if only you knew. Even closer than this.”
She pushes forward and Kyra stumbles back, almost losing her balance. Aisling presses herself flush against her, sliding a leg between hers, until Kyra can feel every cold curve of her body. This isn’t love; it’s mockery, cruelty, and Aisling would never do this.
Kyra tries to pull away but Aisling holds her fast. She feels dizzy, weak, as though she’s been drugged. Her thoughts are sluggish; the only clear thing in her mind is the sound of that voice. It’s not just coming from Aisling’s mouth now; it’s where it’s been all these nights, in her head, in her chest. It fills her, surrounds her, until she can hear nothing else.
“I have dressed myself in Aisling O’Riordan,” it whispers, Aisling’s lips close to Kyra’s ear. “I have wrapped myself in her flesh, trapped myself in her bones, embraced her tighter than you ever, ever could. I have sucked the unsaid words from her silent tongue. I have salvaged memories from the deepest corners of her decaying mind. I have seen inside every chamber of her heart, eaten its secrets, ripe and sweet before the rot.” She bites down on the shell of Kyra’s ear – gentle, playful – and Kyra’s whole body shivers in revulsion. “It never beat for you.”
“Please.” Kyra’s voice is small, scratchy, like something is squeezing her throat. Her blood is pulsing at her temples as though she’s been holding her breath for too long. “I don’t… Let me go…”
An expression almost like hurt crosses Aisling’s face. Except that face doesn’t look like Aisling any more; it looks like a hollow shell, as though something else is working her muscles from the inside. “But you let me in,” the something says. “You invited me. Your grief, your love… the strength of it kept her from leaving, kept her in a place where I could find her, where I could find you. I was cold and I was so alone and don’t you see, you’re saving me…”
Kyra lashes out, wriggling and scratching, but Aisling’s arms only cling tighter, so tight it feels like she’s trying to press inside Kyra’s ribcage. “She could never love you. Not the way you wanted. But I can.”
Kyra stares at the gap between Aisling’s lips, how black and deep it looks, like the space cut out of a moulded mask.
“How could I not love you,” those lips murmur, “here, in this moment? How could I not worship you in gratitude? I owe you everything. Don’t you see that? Oh warm girl, I’ll make you my whole world.”
Aisling kisses her again, deeper this time, forcing Kyra’s mouth open and sucking on her tongue. It feels like a wounding, like theft, and with every press of her lips, every caress of her tongue, Kyra feels more of her life slip away. She can feel her blood slow, her muscles scream as the cold seeps in. When Aisling pulls away Kyra is limp as a doll in her embrace.
Aisling smiles down at her and it’s not her smile now; it’s a seducer’s, a predator’s. “You’ll be everything to me. Your head, your heart, will be full of nothing but me. Isn’t this the kind of love you always wanted?”
“Aisling…” She watches as Aisling’s hand clasps her shoulder, as Aisling’s fingers sink into her flesh as though she is made of soft putty, as though this thing wearing Aisling’s body, speaking with Aisling’s voice, could scoop out her life in handfuls until she’s empty and hollow and vacant…
“Oh poor, kind, warm girl,” she hears as her vision blackens, as she is spread out, stretched, untethered atom by atom to dissolve into the dark. “That’s not my name any more.”
* * *
It’s the best part, she thinks, trying on a new costume for the first time, slipping her fingers inside a living heart until it opens to her like a flower, feeling the exquisite warmth of pulsing blood again. It’s so cold out there, such a frightening place, and she was trapped there for so very long, naked and alone and afraid. But here, inside, she is safe, she is hidden. Living girls are so much better than dead girls. Aisling O’Riordan was a mouldering ruin by the time she moved in. Kyra feels like a home.
She looks down at her hands – dark-skinned now, the fingers longer, the nails dotted in the centre with remnants of lavender polish – and flexes them reverently, getting used to new muscles, new skin. She tests out the voice, sings a snatch of that old, sad song:
‘Had you one kiss from my clay-cold lips
Your time would not be long…’
The final note dissolves into a giggle, low and throaty, and she tips her head back, mouth open, to taste the fresh rain on her tongue.
She turns to see a red-haired boy weaving through the headstones towards her and sifts through Kyra’s memories to find his name. “Connor. What are you–”
“I don’t care what you said. I can’t let you do this any more. Come away. Please.”
The boy cares for Kyra, maybe more than she ever knew. Keeping him close could prove useful one day. She twists Kyra’s features into an expression somewhere between shame and gratitude, then reaches out to take Connor’s hand.
They step out onto the street. A gaggle of children pass, dressed as ghosts and monsters and red-horned devils. Across the road a cluster of students staggers towards the nearest pub, two blood-spattered surgeons and a witch in a corset and thigh-high boots. They’re so innocent, she thinks, so sweetly ignorant. Aisling O’Riordan had known better. But even Aisling had only known half the truth.
On Samhain, the boundaries between this world and the places beyond grow thin as mist and spirits and demons and Sidhe can walk freely amongst the living. You must wear a mask, a disguise, then they will take you for one of them and no harm will come to you.
It’s the only way to stay safe.