Everyone in the city knew our neighborhood. They called it the Twilight District, and it was where you came if you needed something magical done.
Your wife spending money, and you don't know where? There's a trace for that.
Losing your hair, and you're only nineteen, still young enough to be vain? There's a potion to grow it back.
Need reassurance that you won't be passed over for that long-promised promotion? Stop by the Twilight District and buy a luck charm, or else put a minor curse on the only other person up for the job.
My parents had gifts, and my older brothers did, too. Dad was good with money, while Mom and Alex were great with textiles, and Eddy could do wonders with water. I should have been gifted, too, but whatever talent I had never manifested itself.
"Someday," Mom said, but the thought that I might be talentless gnawed at me.
It didn't help that my best friend was one of the most talented people in the entire district. Marianne was kind and brave and beautiful. We'd known each other since kindergarten, and even after her talents - - multiple affinities for metal, fire and air - - had manifested and mine hadn't, she'd remained humble, happy to be my friend when so many others weren't.
"You'll figure it out eventually," she reassured me, after a particularly bad day in grade 8. "Not everyone gets it right away. Stronger talents take time."
I grimaced. The teasing had begun following a familiar pattern: taunting me about my lack of gift, then telling me that I'd have to leave the district if it hadn't appeared by the time I turned 21. "Everyone says that, but the latest anyone's ever gotten theirs is 15, right? So I've got another two years, and then…"
She reached over and squeezed my hand. "They won't toss you out. I asked my dad and he said you don't have to be talented to stay."
I listened and nodded in all the right places as she explained how my gift would appear at any time, I just had to be patient.
In my heart of hearts, though, I knew: people didn't leave because they were forced to. People left because staying was too painful.
"It'll be fine," Marianne promised.
I flashed a smile. "Of course," I said.
The year we turned sixteen was the summer Marianne died and I discovered my gift.
I'd given up on finding it by then. Alex and Eddy had long moved out and joined the guilds for their talents. Marianne was about to join the guild for hers. At home, Mom and Dad talked to me about the possibility of more schooling, what I might like to do.
"You could teach," Mom suggested. The tone of voice she used, the firm and confident, told me that she'd been steeling herself to have this conversation with me for a while.
"Yeah," I said. "I could."
She's left a little pamphlet about the teacher's college, out in the University District, on my desk.
"We can talk to them if you have any questions," she wrote across the front.
I didn't read it.
I went out with Marianne, instead. We were still friends, even though her talents and Mom’s insistence that I study just in case meant that free time was hard to come by.
We spent our time at the park, where we’d always hung out, before gifts and jobs and figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life had become quite so pressing. Sometimes we’d sit on the swings, and sometimes we’d walk around the edge, but it was always the same.
We should have found somewhere else to spend our time, maybe, somewhere age-appropriate, but everywhere that the other kids hung out were spots where someone would ask me about my gift in the fake-sympathetic tone I had come to hate, and I wasn’t prepared.
At the park, there were only kids, none of whom had discovered their gifts yet. Sometimes a parent, who knew who I was (Mom was relentless in her quest to find something for me to do, anything that would keep me in the district), but never did more than flash a pitying smile my direction, as a protection against their own child struggling the same way that I did.
We both knew that we’d be separated in the fall. Marianne would join the guild as soon as she turned seventeen, and Mom would force me into some kind of advanced schooling, possibly the teacher’s college or else another program in the University District.
We knew that these were the last days we had together, and while we never talked about it, both of us was dreading the end of summer.
The last day, we agreed that we’d walk home together. Marianne would go home first (her mom worried after her, and would start calling if she wasn’t home in time for dinner), and I’d walk with her, then walk home on my own.
I didn’t see the car coming.
I didn’t know what happened. There was pain, and suddenly I was lying on the pavement. When I got up, I saw that my wrist was at a weird angle, and Marianne…
I saw her, standing over her own body, looking dazed.
I blinked. My vision was funny, and I didn’t understand what was happening. “Marianne?”
“Steph,” she said. She sounded relieved. “You’re okay! What happened?”
I tried to shake my head, but moving anything, even up and down, hurt. “I don’t know.”
“I’m scared,” she admitted.
I reached out and took her hand in my good one. It was reflexive -- pure instinct. We hadn’t held hands since we were kids, but it felt like the right thing to do. “It’s fine,” I said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Steph,” she repeated. “I’m scared.”
I squeezed her hand, to reassure her, and that’s when it happened.
Marianne disappeared. I saw her body on the pavement, and I started screaming.
Someone else called for an ambulance. They took me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with a broken wrist and collarbone, and a concussion. They kept me overnight, then let me go.
They didn’t tell me about Marianne until later, but they didn’t have to. I already knew.
I knew, because she told me.
When I woke up in the hospital, after that first awful night, I heard Marianne’s voice in my head, clear as day: Steph, what’s going on?
“Um,” I said, out loud. “I think you died.”
And this is the afterlife?
“No. Um. Remember when I held your hand?” I sighed. “I think I...did something.”
You finally found your gift!
You’re a guide! Your mom will be so happy...no more teacher’s college! They’ll want you to join a guild and help the dead find their way. It’s important work.
“Marianne,” I said, quietly. “If I’m a guide, I’ve already fucked it up. You’re still here.”
I wanted to stay, she said. I didn’t want to leave you. And you let me! You gave me your hand, and let me into your mind. I think that’s what happened. I’ve read about it before.
“What do I do now?”
Get out of here, she said. Go to the funeral. Don’t tell my parents. Let yours know what you can do. Say that you saw someone in the hospital and guided them on. They’ll know who to talk to.
“And then what?”
And then we do everything else.
“What about you?”
That part’ll come later. Just hang on, Steph. You’ll see.
I told my parents when I got out. Mom started crying, and Dad gave me an awkward pat on the back. Both of them were tactful enough not to ask about Marianne, whether I’d seen her before she passed to the other side, what might have happened.
I went to the funeral. I got tested and joined a guild. I got an appointment in a hospice across the city, in one of the non-magical districts, where I helped the dying make the transition.
I saw a lot of deaths, some good and some bad. Marianne was still in my head.
She talked to me a lot, at first. During guild training, when I was going through the testing to get the appointment -- all of that, she’d talked to me during. You can do it! Make me proud!
I noticed something, though.
As I grew older, Marianne slowed in how much she talked to me. I was growing up, and I was learning my place in the world, and she -- she didn’t get to do that.
At first, when we spoke, it felt just like the old days: we’re together and we’re spending time chatting about what’s going on, and I can tell her about the cute guy in my guild confirmation classes.
Over time, though, the relationship changed. I began to view her less like a friend and more like my younger sister. It happened gradually, so gradually I couldn’t put a finger on when, but it still happened.
Marianne had been a few weeks away from turning 17 when she died. I’d been 16, too. Neither of us had known what we wanted. She knew what was expected of her, and I knew what was looming in the future for me, but her death had changed everything. She was stuck in time, unable to grow up or change, while I...wasn’t.
By the time I turned 20, I realized that things weren’t the same between us, and never would be again.
On my 22nd birthday, I reached out to her. “Marianne?”
Steph, she said. She sounded almost...groggy. I’m still here!
“I know,” I said. “It’s my birthday. I’m 22 today.”
Wow, she teased. And you still live in the Twilight District!
I squeezed my eyes shut. “So do you.”
Yeah, she said. But…
“Do you want to?”
Silence. All I could hear were my own thoughts.
Steph, she said. Let’s go to the park.
I grabbed my keys, and we went.
It was 7PM, near sunset. There was a chill in the air that suggested it might freeze soon.
I parked in the parking lot near the swingset, where we’d gone when we were teenagers. Where we’d been that last night.
No one was in the park. The houses surrounding it had their lights on, and I could see the warm golden light of different homes, spilling in neat rectangles onto the velvety dark of the grass.
Steph, said Marianne. I’m so proud of you. You found your gift, and you help people with it. You’re doing so well. But I…
I sat heavily in one of the swings. “I know.”
In training, they told us that this wasn’t uncommon. The ones we truly loved had a hard time moving over. If we were comfortable with it, we could let them stay, let them adjust and move on when they were ready, on their own timetable.
I’d recognized this, when they’d talked about it. I’d known that they were talking about Marianne, about me -- about what had led me to discover my gift in the first place.
I knew what to expect.
I’m ready, she said. If you are.
I concentrated hard, thought of Marianne as I’d known her, wearing her favorite outfit, the pink dress she’d been buried in, her long hair cascading down her back in a riot of sandy curls. I thought about the way the corners of her eyes had crinkled when she laughed, the conspiratorial look she’d given me when she said that she’d been asked on a date by the boy we both thought was cute, the breathless way she’d tapped at my window and told me to come outside, the one and only time we snuck out.
I thought of her, and she appeared in the swing next to me.
“Let’s swing a minute,” she said. It was the first time I’d heard her voice outside of my head in over five years.
I pumped my legs, the way she’d taught me when we were both in kindergarten. I ignored the feeling of ridiculousness -- that I was 22 and this was how I was spending my birthday, not with my boyfriend but with my dead best friend, finally letting her free, the strangeness of what I did and just what it was I was going to tell everyone, later, if I said anything at all about why I’d missed my own party…
I thought, and I let it go. I stared into the deepening blue of the sky and said the private goodbye I had been dreading from the first moment she spoke in my mind.
“I love you,” I said, breathless, at the top of an arc.
“I love you too,” I heard Marianne’s voice whisper in my ear. “I’d stay if I could. I love you.”
When I got off the swings, a few minutes later, I was alone for the first time in years.