The skies were always chilly blue in Ingrid’s memory. She and her friends would cast minor wind spells to shuffle up yellow leaves into little whirlwinds. Of course they would have classes coming up, but it was September, syllabus week; for now, they relaxed. Caught up, settled in, decked out their dorms to make them as much like home as they could. For many of them, the school was all they had. Where else could you come exactly as you are? None of them were outcasts, because they all had been.
The gates were tall, proud and wrought iron. Back then, they were a rite of passage. Walk through them and a new year began, like crossing a barrier between them and the outside world, imbued with comfort and protection. Ingrid walks through them again now, four decades later, and her heart twinges with the same feeling. She longs for those times. God! To be a carefree 23 year old again, stumbling through the gates because she’s doubled over, laughing until her lungs hurt. It was a sprawling university, but a small student body, and she and her friends would always find each other on the avenue.
Now, Ingrid takes her time when walking to the dormitories. The leaves crunch under her rugged old boots with every step. Her dorm building is underneath a grove of trees at the end of the boulevard. The trees seem to have grown without check since she left, dwarfing the tiny building; in fact, the plant life seems to have overtaken the campus entirely. No one has cut the grass for years, and it’s high enough now to brush her thighs. The campus garden towers over her head, the fence lost under tangled masses of pumpkins and fall flowers.
The door to her dorm is scrawled with graffiti. She pushes it open with more anger than intended, letting it swing ahead of her, but stops in the doorway. Breathe. The place doesn’t need any more anger. They’re gone now, and she will treat it with the gentleness it deserves.
She squints to see beyond the paint, where they’d etched their names into the frame. Ingrid’s own is neatly carved at the bottom. Cassie, big and angular. Rosalind, always going above and beyond - Ingrid can still smell the sweet wood smoke from when she’d actually burned hers in, curlicues and all. The names are still visible, surrounded by scores of others, all witches from years of history. Theirs are the newest, and the last.
She moves on.
The school never had competitive sports. Witches were more often than not nerds. They’d always reminded one another of that fact while in the midst of studying, sitting cross-legged on the tennis courts, surrounded by diagrams scrawled on the ground. Cassie suggested they petition for a tennis team, because if we lose, she’d said, we could set the Sunstone Hex on their rackets and curse those pretentious Princeton a-holes for the rest of their season!
Yeah, okay, Ingrid had laughed. Maybe if you actually study the Sunstone Hex we can do that. Your sigils look like a first grader drew them with a crayon.
The problem with being so secluded was that they hadn’t heard the rumblings. No, Cassie, oh, dear Cassie... They could never have played tennis against Princeton. No matter how hard they studied. Hell, even if they were good at tennis. If they had ventured onto that campus and breathed a word of Latin, made one gesture for luck, dressed funny, their lives would have been over. But of course they didn’t know that. They were “weird”, they were outcasts, they were the popular kids with a secret, but they never saw themselves as threats.
Ingrid stares silently at the ground. Those same chalk sigils are still under her feet, as untouched for 40 years as if made of lunar dust. Rosalind must have charmed it. She sinks to her knees; this was where they were when it began. She massages her leg absently through her loose fabric pants, feeling everything all over again, like the slightly burnt smell of warm packed clay and the way it stuck to her thighs in shorts.
She was a new senior the day it happened. The initial chill of September had dissipated for a few days, and it left the campus radiating with heat. Ingrid and the group had descended upon the tennis court. They came from the campus coffee, and they’d bought at least a dozen donuts to split (Ingrid could never find those donuts again. The taste and rush of energy they gave seems to have gone down with the building. But perhaps it’s for the better, though, because now the thought of that red velvet donut makes her stomach clench). She’d just set down her pencil when the smell of smoke - not sweet like Rosalind, but bitter and entirely too close - descended upon them.
Then the screaming. They’d all scrambled to the edge of the court and just watched, as the campus coffee roared with flames. Ingrid had found herself unable to move. She couldn’t. She couldn’t move when the attackers poured through the gates, armed with bandanas, signs, and guns. She couldn’t move when police surrounded the campus. She couldn’t move when they started making arrests. She couldn’t move when they arrested Cassie. She could only sink to the ground in Rosalind’s arms and murmur as much as she could remember for protection, for help, for luck. Some prayers may have slipped in, but who knows - the words hadn’t sounded like they were coming from her.
A chilly wind snaps her back to the present, and Ingrid stands up with a start. There’s faint chalk imprints on her clothes from where she knelt over Cassie’s words. She jumps to brush these ghosts off her body, but falters, her hands shaking. Breathe.
She hurries out of the tennis court, running through her mental list. There’s a therapist in the apartment two floors below her. He’s kind and as understanding as he can be, considering. He gave her boxes to check; number one, breathe. Number two, count something. Number three, be aware of your senses. They’re to stay grounded, he’d told her. Just in case you have panic attacks. He doesn’t get her completely. He never could. But there’s something that lifts off her shoulders when she talks about it, something like closure when she puts her emotions and memories to words.
Spell writing was Ingrid’s passion as a student. Nothing made her happier than molding her language at will to create new things. Many sides of her were ruined for her that September, but despite it all, that love for wordplay remains. She writes about her white-walled apartment, the view of the park, and the food she eats. A journal is always by her bedside, so the moment she wakes up she can record her dreams. She writes about Cassie and Rosalind but changes their names. Ingrid is the only survivor she knows; the others have fled, or faded into the shadows just as she has. As a fugitive in her own hometown, she observes and records, but never speaks.
But as she walks now through the graveyard that was her alma mater, a spark of inspiration forms. She passes the door with graffiti again and descriptors jump to mind. Garish, loud spatters of paint, like the slice of a jugular. Voodoo, they scream. Crazy b****es. However, as loud as they are, Ingrid is determined that they will never drown out her words underneath. Their words. Damn it, she’ll tell their stories herself. She might have to change their names still, and write under a pseudonym, but as long as there’s something out there, the graffiti can’t hide it all. Ingrid couldn’t bring herself to fight then. But maybe she can fight now by doing what she does best. She can try to take back this university, brick by brick, page by page.
Cassie and Rosalind would want it that way.