her palms resting flat against the worn grain. Motionless, soundless, she sits, her very breath subdued, her very thoughts stilled, as if the very air has grown heavy and slowed every aspect of her body. Only there is not the slightest struggle, as there would be if she were not perfectly willing. But she is entirely calm, calmer than most five-year olds are able to remain at any time other than sleep.
A light breeze brushes the delicate strands of her auburn hair, though no window is open in the little-used room. She smiles, her eyes remaining closed, as she greets someone unseen with a hushed young voice: "Hello. Will you tell me another story today?"
"Oh yeah? Well my
house has ghosts in it!"
A small crowd is gathered in the largely-empty room, which is used by the ragtag groups of boys as a meeting place when the weather is disagreeable, as the rain is today. Their eyes look at him carefully, their expressions ranging from skepticism to awe to sheer terror.
"No... how do you know?"
"My sister hears them talking sometimes."
"Wow, really?" "Ah, no way." "She isn't scared?" "This
"Hey, isn't your sister a baby still?"
To his credit, he only flushes slightly before recovering his cool. "She's five, and a lot smarter than you, I'll bet."
His remark is met with jeering laughter, but the other boy, perhaps a year older, does not back down. "I bet she makes up stories to tell just to get everyone's attention to herself, just like you do."
Switching allegiance as quickly and surely as only young boys eager to look good can, they now catcall in the opposite direction.
"I do not, I was just sayin' the truth! She really does talk to them, and no kid that little could make up the stories she says they tell her, and I sure ain't sittin' around all day tellin' my little sister stories."
There are chuckles, but the burden of proof still rests on the younger boy - it is his reputation still on the line.
"Sure, sure, easy to say, but how you gonna prove it?"
Thinking rapidly, he glances around the group of boys in search of inspiration. In a moment, he finds it: "Say, Harry, ain't your older sister got one of those boards that lets you talk to ghosts?"
"Yeah, she's got a talking board, sure."
"Think we could borrow it somehow? That would settle things pretty quick, wouldn't it?"
The boys nod in thoughtful approval, though a few of the younger ones look nervous about the endeavor.
"I heard some preacher say the devil talks through those," a young voice pipes up, only slightly hesitantly. "He told my papa that it ain't natural to try talking to those as what's already stopped living."
"No-one said you had to come if you're a little yellow chicken," jeers another in answer, and the group's laughter sends him back into the meek and humble posture of the smaller boys.
"When can you get it, Harry?" "Should we do it at night? That's when ghosts are out mostly." "Wouldn't it be too dark to see nothin'?" "Nah, ghosts light themselves up, everyone knows that." "How many ghosts do you think there are?" "Wow, right here, maybe even in this room, right now..."
"Quiet!" commands the older boy, whose line of questioning had led to the proposed trial. "Now, Harry, when do you think you can get this board?"
"Well..." He pauses a moment in deep consideration. "I suppose anytime after Thursday night. She's having friends over then, and they sometimes use it. But I know she'll be out Friday night, she always sneaks back in real late and sleeps most of the next day, so as long as I get it back by suppertime Saturday, it's okay."
Turning to the boy who professed his house contains unworldly spirits, the older boy continues his stern questioning. "Tim, can you arrange sometime between Friday and suppertime on Saturday for us to meet here?"
"It can't be too late, Mom won't want all of you in here keeping people awake, and she cleans most of the house on Friday, but Saturday is fine."
"Then Harry, you be sure to get that board by Saturday. Everyone else, get your chores done early or sneak out, and be here by exactly one in the afternoon on Saturday."
Various consents are called out, and the group begins to break up, heading for the door out of the room, the infallible clock in each boy's stomach alerting them it is nearly dinnertime. Gradually, they file out, chattering eagerly about the plans made for a few days away. Timothy is the last to leave, picking up a few stray pinecones and pebbles the smaller boys dropped, to prevent a scolding from Ma, before moving to leave the room as well.
The older boy hangs back a minute also, and tosses a wadded-up gum wrapper casually at the younger boy. "Hey Tim... don't cut out on us, alright?"
Grinning confidently, he crushes the gum wrapper in his hand with the rest of the debris. "Not a chance, Mike."
Later that evening, he pulls his younger sister aside, taking her into the spare room, where they can talk in private. "Hey, Gracie, do those voices you hear still tell you stories?"
She giggles, plopping down on the floor, playing with a small pebble. "They're not voices, silly, they're people, they just lived a long time ago. Well not all of them, some of them didn't live so very long ago. But they tell me such int'resting stories."
He chuckles and rolls his eyes. "Uh-huh. But you said they talk mostly when you're in here?"
"Uh-huh. This is their favorite room, partly because it's mostly quiet in here, and there aren't other people bothering them. But they like it too because they remember a lot of things about it, and there are lots of things they recognize. They tell me lots of stories about things that happened in this room. I ask them to lots of times, because then I get to feel like I'm part of the story, too!"
Smiling at her youthful enthusiasm, he pats her short hair gently. "Do you think they would mind talking to some of my friends on Saturday, Gracie? I promise I'll make them be very quiet. And the... the people you talk to, they don't even have to talk out loud to anyone, Harry's going to bring something that... Well, it will sort of let them write things to us. Do you think they'd come?"
She shrieks with laughter, throwing the stone across the floor and watching it roll beneath the small end table in a corner. "Silly Timmy, they're always here! There are bunches of them, and some of them are always here."
He shivers slightly, suppressing the sudden fearful urge to look around himself.
"They don't really like your friends, they're too noisy and rough. But if I ask nicely, and they boys are quiet and not mean, and my friends don't really have to talk to them, I guess it's okay."
He laughs happily, jumping to his feet and picking his little sister up, spinning her around as she laughs in delight. "Thank you, Gracie! I promise to buy you a candy, with my very next allowance, how's that sound?"
Her eyes go wide. "Will you buy me a peppermint stick? Really truly?"
He nods, grinning broadly. "Really truly."
"Hurray!" she cries, and the moment he sets her down, she goes running merrily out of the room, laughing joyfully.
Having gotten his mother's consent to have a group of friends over on Saturday afternoon - as well as her assurance that she would leave them undisturbed - he makes a final check of the room, pushing the spare furniture a little closer to the walls, to ensure there is space for everyone on the floor. Harry had given him a rough size of the talking board, and they had decided it would be best to lay it on the floor, rather than try to balance the thick wood on the small end table.
Just as he pushes aside a box of old records, Grace calls out his name. "Timmy! Your friends are here!"
"Okay! Show 'em inside, Gracie, have them come back here."
Quarter of an hour later, after a prolonged period of disorganized scrambling, minor fights, and overlapping voices, the various boys are seated, excitedly but calmly, around the large board set on the floor. Being a few feet across, there is not enough room for all of them to sit directly beside it, which was cause for a great deal of initial dispute, but the internal ranking of the boys soon had the trouble resolved.
A sudden moment of rare silence falls on them, uncertain of what should be done next. They look at the unassuming slab of wood before them curiously - though this is the first time many of them have seen one, all have heard stories. It is a rather simple thing, nothing inherently unusual about the large, heavy black letters which cross the warm gold colored board in a smooth arch. Beneath the letters are printed numbers in a line, and beneath them, the words "Good Bye". In one corner is a detailed man-in-the-moon, in another a crescent moon and star, each with ominous dark clouds behind. The words "yes" and "no" are set beside the two moons. In the lower two corners - well, there at least is an image giving indication of the board's true substance, sending shivers up the backs of the younger boys. Several hands rest on a planchette, but one woman has taken her hands from it - behind her is a shadowy face, floating in midair, doubtless a spirit long-departed from the living world.
As the eldest boy present, Mike feels a duty to both begin and officiate the proceedings. "Well Harry, explain to everyone how this works."
The principles have been discussed, debated, questioned, doubted, wondered over, gone over a thousand times in the days prior, but each one present now feels a formal introduction is proper. In any case, the younger boys might have forgotten, and should be told again.
"Um, well... This smaller piece of wood with the glass in it is called the planchette. You put your fingertips on it, really lightly, like this. No pushing is allowed, that messes things up. You can do it with one person, but I think it works better with more. You ask it a question, and if there's a spirit nearby, it'll move the planchette to spell out answers for you. But you can't make it mad, or it won't answer you. And if you really make it mad---" He pauses his narrative for dramatic affect, as well as to look around and be sure his audience is paying full attention, then drops his voice: "Sometimes, the spirits will do things to you. Sometimes it's just stuff like messing things up when you leave the room. But sometimes, they'll attack you in your own brain and make you think of the most horrible things. One of my sister's friends told her that some man in her town had done something to get a spirit really mad, and a fire started in the room!" He looks around again with a solemn expression and smug heart, as he sees the grave fear stamped on every face from his warnings.
After a horrible pause, during which every boy's worst nightmare plays out bin his imagination in the most excruciating detail, Mike clears his throat. "Well. We'll be real polite then, and no-one say anything mean about ghosts, alright? Especially things like you don't believe in them, they really hate that. And it's stupid anyway to be sitting here waiting for answers from ghosts if you don't even believe in them. So anyone who don't proper believe in ghosts and things, you better get out now. If you're scared, too. I won't say this isn't risky, but I'm gonna see what it says."
There are nods of agreement all around, with only slight hesitations here and there.
"So how do we start it, Henry? There's not a switch or somethin'?"
"Well, like I said, some of us should put our fingertips lightly on the planchette, like this..."
"We better only have a few of us, it'll get too crowded, and it has to be men we know won't push it. Harry and I, and Tim of course. And I suppose Rick, you can too. The rest of you, don't crowd or nothin', and keep quiet. It helps if we all focus on the question being asked, right?"
Harry nods. "Right, and keep kinda quiet."
Tim nods as well. "My sister told me the ghosts don't usually like you guys, you're too loud." A few chuckles answer his remark, some in agreement and just a few in scorn that he should so fully credit the word of his baby sister.
"Harry, you know the most about it, so I think you should ask the questions. You can start whenever you're ready, and I'll punch out the first kid who makes too much noise."
"Okay. So everyone, just think about the questions, and don't talk too much or make loud noises, especially all the sudden. And don't move real fast, no matter what happens." Harry waits a few moments, closing his eyes and breathing slowly and deeply, until complete silence has fallen on the room. He recalls to mind the words his sister always says when she and her friends start asking the board questions, and intones them in as grave and deep a voice as he is able to find. "O Spirits who yet linger in this mortal world, are there any of you present here with us now?"
Feeling a slight motion beneath his fingertips, Harry opens his eyes again, watching as the planchette moves over the golden grains of wood. There are a few hushed gasps and whispers. Mike gazes sternly at the hands of the others, making certain no one is pushing it, watching for any betraying strain of muscle - but he sees none. Tim looks in awe, knowing that the delicate, smooth motion could not be cause by any of the young boys, or by any usual movement of wood against wood.
As the motion stops, Harry reads out the word revealed by the glass eye in the planchette: "Yes."
Further gasps from the surrounding group are abruptly silenced by a sharp glare from Mike, and only the faintest of murmurs pass between the gathered boys.
"Ask who the spirit is," suggests Tim gently, his fingers tingling a little, his stomach fluttering with a volatile combination of uneasiness and excitement.
Trembling a little, having only once actually used the board before now, and not a little worried about what they might be communicating with, Harry clears his throat. "O Spirit from the other realms, what is your name?"
The planchette begins to move again - directly to the word "No".
"No? What's that mean?" Mike looks in query at Harry.
"I... I'm not sure. O Spirit, do you have no name?"
More quickly this time, the planchette skims over the alphabet letters. It pauses on the letter "F", then slides until it reaches "O", where it pauses again, and so on through several letters, called out in turn by Harry.
"F... O... R... G... E... T. Forget! It must have forgotten its name! Wow, I bet he's been dead a long time, then..."
"Ask him how long!"
"Shh! Anyway, anyone who doesn't remember his own name ain't gonna remember what day he died on, stupid."
Harry now looks to Tim for a suggestion, sensing that he will have the right sort of idea.
As well he does. "Harry, ask... ask if it's a man or a woman."
"O Spirit, when you lived, were you a man or woman?"
The planchette moves with frightening rapidity, eliciting gasps from even the boys touching it.
"STILL ALIVE WOMAN NOT DEAD I AM"
Following the veritable torrent of words, the planchette drops to a dead still. Every eye in the room is wide with fear, and every spine tingles with the sense of a ghostly presence, perhaps just behind them! A few of the boys do look around them, in sheer natural reaction.
Mike swallows hard, trying to keep his voice even. "Guess that was the wrong thing to say... D'you think she's mad, Harry?"
His skin uncommonly pale, Harry stares at the wood beneath his fingers. "I... I don't know. But we should be real careful. And ask something nice next."
Softly, recovering from the initial fright, Tim speaks again. "Maybe ask how she's feeling? That's real polite, that couldn't make anyone mad."
"Yeah, good idea!"
"O Spirit... um... How are you feeling?"
There is a pause before the planchette begins to move again, and they wonder for a moment - some in secret relief - if it will move at all. But it does, much more calmly than before.
"TIRED NOW SAD"
"I'll bet saying so much before made her tired," suggests Rick.
"But sad... I hope we didn't make her sad. Ask her, Harry," Tim requests.
With understandable wariness, he does. "Spirit, have we made you sad?"
The planchette moves calmly to the word "No", and the communal sigh of relief is audible. Yet the breath released is quickly drawn back in, as the planchette begins to move again.
There are looks of compassion here and there, but no-one will say any words of sympathy - to do so would break the unspoken code of this and every group of boys. No such weak emotion is shown, at any cost, to do so is to be unmanly, and is inexcusable.
All faces turn to Tim, who thinks for a long moment, then shrugs. "If she's tired, maybe we better let her go. We could ask if there are other spirits here."
"Good idea. Do it, Harry."
"Spirit, we know that you and tired, and will let you rest. Are there others with you?"
"TOO MANY NOISY" The planchette pauses a moment, as if uncertain.
"Go and rest, spirit," Timothy whispers gently. "Thank you for talking to us." To their astonishment, the planchette moves again, this time running slowly over the words "Good Bye".
Silence hangs in the air for a long moment, and several of them shiver, feeling as if a chill breeze had just moved past them. After a minute or two, the eyes of Tim and Mike meet across the talking board. "Well? Do you believe me now?" Tim asks - but has too much respect for the other's age and thus rank to allow himself a smile of satisfaction.
Mike nods solemnly but grins as well. "Yeah, you proved it alright. But what should we do now?" He turns his attention to the group at large. "Since everything's set and we have a couple hours before we have to get the board back. Do we wanna get another ghost to talk? Or just stop now?"
Inside each boy's mind there is some part which pleads to stop now, in some a larger part, in others a smaller. Yet before the thought has fully formed, it is overtaken by a louder one - the sense in each of them that the group would look down on such cowardice, even were every one of them to feel the same. Besides that, there is the overwhelming drive of boyhood curiosity, which rules over nearly all else. And so:
"Keep going!" "Yeah!" "I wanna know just how many ghosts there are in here." "Can I try?" "Can't the rest of us get a turn?" "Can I ask a---"
! What did I tell you? Keep quiet, or none of them will come near us," Mike hisses, his eyes narrowing threateningly. "And you can't all try, there's not enough room. And I don't trust all of you to not move it and mess things up."
Harry takes his fingers off the planchette, sitting back a little. "Someone can take my spot though." He looks at Tim, who nods, accepting the role of speaker.
"And mine," volunteers Rick, moving back among the others.
"Alright, lemme see... Craig, Nate, you guys can come up," Mike decides. The two boys move into place, with a mixture of pride and anxiety. "Like this? Are we doing it right?"
"Yeah, you're fine," assures Tim. "Should I start, then?" Mike nods his assent, and the group becomes hushed again in anticipation.
"Is there a spirit here with us?" Tim asks, not choosing to speak in the impressive flourishes Harry had - but the rest had been tiring of those anyway. Somehow, this felt more real, as if they were really
just talking with ghosts, same as they would talk to each other.
"Spirit, do you have a name?"
The boys sit in silence, waiting for the planchette to elaborate. But after a full minute has passed, it has not again moved. Puzzled, Tim asks again. "Spirit, what is your name?"
At last, the planchette moves slowly and steadily over the large capital letters:
Tim shudders, feeling a chill along his spine. There is again an audible intake of breath from the other boys, but to their credit, they do not speak.
"Spirit, y--- your name is Timothy?"
Taking a deep breath, convincing himself it is simply a coincidence, Tim continues. "Alright... Timothy, how many other spirits are in the room with you?"
"Five? Whoa..." "Five now
? Does that mean there are usually more?" "Could be less." "Yeah but we know one just left..."
"Shh!" Mike again reprimands, for though the boys had spoken barely above a whisper, he is becoming uneasy, and fearful of upsetting the spirit. There is something about this one which is creating a knot in his stomach, far more than the previous ghost.
"Let's see... Spirit, how do you feel?"
There is a hushed titter of laughter, quickly silenced by Tim, whose hair is prickling on the back of his neck. "Spirit, what are you hungry for?"
The planchette begins moving with frightening rapidity, barely pausing on the letters: "H...U...N...G...R...Y...F...O..."
The door into the room opens, but only Tim looks up, the rest are far too transfixed by the board. "R...B..."
"Gracie, what are you doing in here?" he hisses quietly, his fingertips still on the moving wood. "Didn't Mom tell you not to---. Gracie, what's wrong?" he asks quickly, suddenly taking in her wide, scared eyes.
She hurries over to stand behind him, eyeing the board in fear, words tumbling from her in a quivering whisper. "Timmy, you should stop. I know--- Juliet just told me, she was talking to you but she left because she was tired but--- she said someone else took her place and--- and Timmy, it's one of the mean ones. The others won't let him tell me stories, or even talk to me at all, I don't know what he did but Timmy you should stop---"
Faces pale as her hushed voice breaks the breathless silence, and a few of the smaller boys whimper in fear.
"O...D... Hungry f-- for blood---" Mike's voice squeaks out, his hands shaking, though still frozen on the planchette, which continues to move.
Tim takes his hands from the possessed wood, turning to Gracie and hugging her protectively to his side. "What should we do? Can you talk to them, can the others help us?"
Her young body is trembling. "I... I'm scared. I don't know if I can talk to him, I don't know if he let me anyway---"
"No, Gracie, don't talk to him, it's too dangerous! But could you try the others, and ask them to help us?"
She nods solemnly. "I can. Wait."
Pulling herself free of his arms, she scampers to the other end of the room, near the window and bookcase, where a small patch of sunlight falls on the golden wood of the floorboards. She sits down, her skirt spreading in a circle about her short legs. Taking a deep breath, she closes her eyes.
After a moment, her breathing becomes subdued, as if she is falling asleep. Tim watches her intently, anxious and concerned, but with a little curiosity and awe as well, having full faith in his sister's ability.
She smiles, and speaks in a soft voice. "Hello again. I'm glad you're not sad any more. Can you help my brother's friends?"
"E...A...V...E..." The planchette moves from the arch of letters to the corner showing the full moon, then the corner with the crescent moon, then the lower corners, back to the full moon, passing with increasing rapidity from one corner to the next, without rest.
"Harry! What's going on, what does that mean?" No longer is there calm and leadership in Mike's voice - he is as frightened as the rest.
"I... I don't know, I've never seen it do this before..."
"Take your hands off of it!" "Yeah, don't do it anymore, I'm scared." "Don't touch it!" Yet despite the growing pleas from the other boys, those who remain touching the planchette continue to do so, transfixed and near frozen by fear.
She giggles softly, nodding in sympathy. "I know they're loud, Juliet, I'm sorry... Can you please try to help them anyway? For my sake. My brother's over there too, and you know he's a nice boy."
Their eyes go still wider, hearts pounding in terror, as the planchette moves back toward the letters, each of them scared half to death of what it might now spell out. Quickly, the planchette begins passing over the alphabet, moving from the letter "Z" back through, and they wait without breathing for it to pause on a letter.
But it does not.
Her breath is stilled as well, but a gentle smile remains on her lips, and she nods in apparent encouragement from time to time.
Tim looks worriedly at his sister, ready at an instant's notice to scramble over to her side, but so far respecting her and her voices, knowing she needs space and no interruption. His stomach knotted, his heart pounding, a constant stream of emotion runs through him, chills and fear and an almost claustrophobic sense of being surrounded.
The planchette is moving slower, but still it does not stop, as it continues its constant skimming through the alphabet. The boys sit silent, waiting anxiously for any hint of communication, uncertain and scared. Someone is whispering, and it takes a moment to distinguish the words, but gradually they can all make out:
"Our Father, who are in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day..."
Moving more slowly than ever, faintly, as if exhausted, the planchette finally reaches the letter "A", and haltingly, ceases to move. There is a long pause, with no one yet daring to speak, hardly daring to breathe, terrified it begin again to slide over the board.
She smiles warmly, and whispers to someone unseen. "Thank you... I know you don't really like him, I don't either. Thank you very much. Will you come tell me a story tonight? I have to go now." A moment later, her wide eyes open, clear and happy. "Is everything okay now?" she asks her brother, who sits in still awe and relief, the dark feelings which had held him in silent terror moving away. He turns back to look at the board, and sees the planchette motionless. His still-soundless friends are just now beginning to take their fingers from the planchette, trembling not a little. Smiling weakly, he nods to her, mouthing a "thank you". She gets to her feet, and walks from the room, giggling brightly without a care, the sound a sharp contrast to the continued silence of the usually rambunctious boys.
Shakily, they at last begin to move back from the talking board, though it is a few minutes yet before all feel secure enough to take their eyes from it. Harry reaches over, and nervously removes the planchette from the board, setting it on the floor, taking his fingers from it as quickly as if he had been burned.
Clearing his throat, Mike is the first to speak, trying valiantly to regain mastery of himself. "Well, Tim, I guess you pretty well proved yourself."
The group around him nods in agreement, a few of them now managing smiles. Tim grins brightly and nods, relieved in countless directions at once.
"Here," Mike continues, looking warily back at the board. "One of you help me take this back with Harry, and we'll just have time to do somethin' else before supper."
The boys jump up almost instantly en masse
, laughing and chattering as the grave mood is broken, full of nervous energy and utter relief to be getting away from the now-ominous golden wood and black shapes - as well as the room they now know contains numerous ghosts. Noisily, a few of them carrying the board between them (out of the safety felt in numbers more than actual need for its weight), they begin leaving the room, moving only a little more quickly than usual.
"And hey, Tim!" one calls out from amidst the small crowd. "Tell your sister she's alright."