Writer Holly Morse-Ellington recounts a night of spooky signals, her first and last experience Ouija-boarding as a kid. Happy Halloween, everybody, from Baltimore Fishbowl!
Thanksgivings in Chicago could be a serious snooze compared to most of our family holidays. For one, sharing the backseat of a midsize car with my brother during the seven-hour drive from Kentucky to our dad’s family in Chicago made us tired and cranky. For another, by the time we’d reacquainted ourselves with our cousins, it was time to go back home. Chicago is an exciting big city compared to the rinky-dink town we lived in, but more often than not we passed the weekend restricted to my aunt and uncle’s conservative suburban home. The entertainment highlight: Uncle Sid’s colorful reactions to his VHS recordings of Bears games. Thanksgiving was more like detention among members of The Breakfast Club than holiday from school. Of the five of us cousins forced together, I was the pipsqueak of the bunch and struggled the most to fit in. But one particular Thanksgiving, when I was 11 and the other cousins were high schoolers, I was up for doing anything to prove that I was cool and mature too. That anything turned out to be a maturing experience for all of us kids.
It was the Friday night after Thanksgiving. Our parents had been cooking, cleaning, and tolerating for three days.
“We’re going on a walk,” Aunt Nancy said.
“You guys stay here and find something to do,” my dad said before any of us could ask to come along.
Jenny, Erin, Trevor, my brother Jason and I stood in the hallway watching our parents swaddle their heads, necks, and hands with layers of wool. As soon as they left, Jenny, now the lady of her parents’ house, suggested we play a game. She’d recently bought a Ouija Board and wanted to hold a séance.
“Are you guys too chicken?” Jenny asked.
Erin, who was generally considered to be a better Mormon than her brother, Trevor, wasn’t afraid to challenge the idea.
“That game’s satanic or something. Plus, I think it’s too scary, if you know what I mean.” Erin glanced in my direction.
I didn’t want Erin’s maternal instincts to make me look like a baby in front of the boys and Jenny, who was the pretty, blond cheerleader I wanted to be like.
“I’ve played the Ouija Board before,” I said. “Several times.”
“Well what are we waiting for?” said Trevor.
Jenny produced a bag from under her bed, a sort of séance emergency kit stocked with staples like candles, matches, and incense. The five of us clomped down the basement stairs and set up on the cold, concrete floor. When we turned off the lights, only flickering candlelight and the scent of knotty pine reminded us that we were in a home, not some dark underworld.
We sat cross-legged in a circle. Erin, still reluctant to play, scooted back from the board.
“I’m just going to watch,” she said. “Trevor, are you sure you want to play?”
“Yes, Erin,” he said. “I’m playing.”
“Holly and Erin can watch,” my brother said.
“But you have to sit behind us,” Jenny said. “Only the people playing can form the circle around the board.”
Jenny, Trevor, and Jason warmed up the spirit world by looping the pointer in figure-eight motions over the board’s black and tan surface. The basement was silent except for the pointer scratching across the board like skate blades on ice. Then Jenny asked the first question.
“Is anybody there?”
The three continued to guide the plastic planchette.
“Does anyone want to talk to us?” Jenny asked again.
They lifted their fingers off the game piece, testing whether it could move on its own. Nothing. They resumed the figure eights.
“We’d like to talk to someone,” Trevor said. “Does anyone want to talk to us?”
The pointer sputtered like a car engine struggling to turn over. It stopped and started before resting its window over the word YES.
All of us leaned in to be nearer the candle’s glow.
“What is your name?” Jenny asked.
Once again they swirled the pointer.
The pointer continued to move across the board.
“Your name is John?” my brother asked.
“Where are you?” my brother asked.
Our hearts pulsed erratically like flicks from the candles. Trevor accused the others of manipulating the pointer.
“I’m barely touching it,” Jenny said.
“Me too,” my brother said.
They continued to channel John through the heart-shaped game piece.
“Are you there, John?” Jenny asked.
The pointer crept.
“John, do you have a message for us?” Jenny asked.
The pointer eked across the board as if John were short of breath.
Our minds swirled with all the words that could start with A.
The pointer gained momentum.
We huddled closer together.
We stared at each other. My mind filled the black space surrounding our circle with glowing ghoulish creatures. I reached for Erin’s hand. Jenny realized they’d taken their hands completely off the pointer without performing a critical step in ending the game. She swiped the pointer’s window over “GOODBYE” to officially close any spirit connection.
The floorboards creaked overhead. We shoved the game under a pile of laundry and ran upstairs. Our parents were back home, bringing a chill with them.
“You’ll never believe what’s happening down the street,” Uncle Sid said.
“A neighbor’s house is on fire,” Aunt Nancy said.
Our parents had observed the scene long enough to hear the scoop passed on by a police officer.
“The firemen suspect arson,” my dad said.
None of us spoke. What would we say? While you were out we met a hellion from the underworld who might be able to help with the investigation? Or maybe: It’s possible we unleashed a pyromaniac demon onto the block. We didn’t know what we were responsible for, if anything. We could just as easily dismiss the night’s events as one creepy coincidence.
We didn’t even discuss what had happened with one another. It was as though our real source of fear was in acknowledging that we could verify one another’s story. That we hadn’t made it up.
The next morning Jenny announced that the cousins were going shopping. I sat at the kitchen table as they got up to leave.
“Come on, Holly. You’re coming with us,” Jenny said.
I felt big to be included in such a joy ride. Jenny had bigger plans than shopping, though.
“We have to return that thing,” she said. “We’ll tell them it’s defective or something.”
“Do you think they’ll go for that?” my brother asked.
“They have to or we’re throwing it in the dumpster. It’s not coming back to my house,” Jenny said.
The five of us had entered that basement with a plastic toy to prove we weren’t babies, goody-goodies, or chickens, or incapable of sharing a bond. Whatever the explanation for that night, we found a new respect for toys and cousins and even boredom.
Holly Morse-Ellington has published in The Journal for Homeland Security, The Washington Times, and Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore. She’s currently working on her first book.
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