I don’t look in telescopes because what if I see something I’m not supposed to, like a UFO or a black hole or an incoming comet? I couldn’t enjoy the stars. I’d be too afraid look around because something could be out there ready to wreck it all. I don’t want to be the one who finds it. I don’t want to be the first to know it’s all coming apart. Same goes for snorkeling. I couldn’t explain to Mom and Dad why I was the only one who wanted to stay on the boat when we went to Grand Turk for Mom’s birthday. There’s trouble down there. I don’t want to be the one who sees it, whatever it is.
Alissa pulled out the Ouija board she had been hiding from her mom inside the box for Stratego. Mrs. Rosalita was the most religious person I’d ever met—she was likely to burn the whole closet just to get rid of the board without touching it.
“This isn’t gonna work if any of you are planning on moving it yourself. You’ve gotta just touch the pointer without moving it. Don’t be a fucker.”
Alissa turned the lights down to almost nothing. She was the tallest of us all. She was best in the class at the high jump and the 200-meter dash, and she said she let Colin Veers touch her boobs afterschool last year. It wasn’t that Colin touched her—it was the way she worded it to us. She let him.
“What do we do?” Kate asked, looking at the black folded Ouija board like it was alive.
“All we do is ask. That’s it.”
“Yeah, but what do we ask?”
“Anything. But only if you want to know the real truth.”
Alissa threw a sleep-over every year since first grade—the last weekend before school started. The line-up changed each grade. She stopped inviting Dana when she got into anime. Elizabeth stopped coming when she started hanging out with the volleyball girls, and Hannah took her spot until she called Alissa a slut for the Colin thing. I was never Alissa’s best friend, but I was the only one who had never been left off the guest-list.
“Have you ever done it before?”
“No. I had to wait until I could do it with more people. I’m not doing it alone.”
“I don’t have anything to ask,” I said pushing my palms into the thick carpet. I wasn’t lying. I didn’t want to ask. I thought of the boat at Grand Turks, where I sat playing with my life jacket next to the Caribbean men spitting chewing tobacco into a coffee mug, waiting to help the older tourists out of the water. Over the side railing, snorkels rose and sank into the clear water like whack-a-mole. There’s trouble down there. I know it’s there. What’s wrong with not wanting to see it?
Alissa retrieved two tea candles for each of us to scattered throughout the living room. I was going to put mine on the mantle, but when I saw how it lit the pictures of Alissa’s deceased grandparents, I shivered and refused.
“Okay. This is a really important part. We’ve gotta invite the spirits into the room by offering them something. So, you’ve gotta put something you love on the edge of the board.”
“Will we get it back?” Zoe asked.
“Yeah, you’re gonna get it back. What, do you think the spirits are gonna steal your stuff?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how ghosts work?”
“They’re spirits. Not ghosts.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked, pretending to search my pockets for something to offer.
“Ghosts are here to hurt people. Spirits are here to help people. If we make the spirits angry, they’ll turn into ghosts.” She talked like she knew, so we didn’t challenge her.
Zoe put her house key on the board, and Kate offered her cellphone. Alissa grabbed a guitar pick from her pocket. She explained she got it from a guy she was talking to online. He called himself “Jerome,” but Alissa said she didn’t believe him. She goes by the name “Ava”—so of course, Jerome was going by a fake name too. She said it was probably some old guy from our town—maybe one of our dads.
“I don’t have anything to offer,” I said, looking for a way out.
“What about your necklace?”
My brothers gave the necklace to me last Christmas, and I didn’t want it to be touched by any spirits. What if it felt charged by some kind of force when I went to put it back on? What if it felt electric, or magnetic, or cursed by something?
“Just put your socks up. As long as the spirits know we respect them, they’ll come.” Alissa was arranging the items at the edge of the board and sliding her guitar pick front and center.
I balled my sock off and handed it for Alissa. “How will we know they’re here?”
I think we all felt this was the last sleepover. Not many traditions started in Elementary School keep up through High School. The first year, Mrs. Rosalita made popcorn while we watched “Free Willy” and made origami birds from an instruction booklet. Alissa’s always came out with bigger wings—regal and clean. She snipped dashes into the wings for feathers and placed her creations on the coffee table. I couldn’t figure it out. We used the same paper and the same instructions. Every bird I folded looked banged up. Mine looked more like condors or broken, bright-colored vultures than cranes.
Mrs. Rosalita stopped watching over us a few years ago, at Alissa’s constant behest. Since then, we’ve watched scary Japanese movies and talked about boys. It feels like the wind has gone out of these annual gatherings. They’re mostly an excuse, now, to show the clothes we’ve all gotten for the first day of school. But this year, Alissa wants us to talk to the dead.
“Who’s got a question?” Kate said, sliding the planchette just under the semi-circle of letters in an ancient and elegant font. The board looked old and worn. There were pentagrams bookending the queue of ten digits.
“Not yet. First, we invite the spirits. Close your eyes.” Alissa grabbed Zoe and Kate’s hands. Across the table, they both grabbed mine. “Spirits of the dead, find your way. We bring you gifts from life into death. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us.”
She didn’t have a smirk. She didn’t keep her eyes open as I did. She spoke like a teacher—like an expert. She didn’t make it cartoonishly spooky like a bad Scooby Doo villain. She was tall and pretty, and she could summon the dead to answer her questions. In sixth grade, we had lockers three away from each other, and I could see her locker fill up with love notes from the boys. The girls all hated her. They spread rumors that she fucked Mr. Dennett—rumors that got so far, the principal called special meetings to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. It wasn’t jealousy that made them hate her, though. Maybe it was just that she figured it all out so quickly—what to say to the boys to get them unraveled. She was in a different world. She was in outer space. Underwater. She wasn’t afraid to see the trouble out there.
She spoke slower now. “So, should I go first?”
We all put our hands on the planchette. I touched it like someone would test to see if the stove-top was still hot.
“Spirits, please tell me, is the guy I talk to online named Jerome?”
The spirits spoke quick, and with all four of us denying we were putting any force onto the planchette, the tip settled on “No.”
“What is hi—”
“No. I get to ask now.” Kate sat up and adjusted her hand over the pointer. “Who is Sara gonna date this year?” she asked pushing against my shoulder. Zoe and Alissa looked at me and grinned.
I don’t know why this Ouija board felt different than when we used to fold origami fortune-tellers at lunch. Alissa didn’t need the instruction booklet. She could fold it from memory, and she made new ones all the time. We sat at the lunch table and predicted who would slow dance with Craig at the fifth-grade graduation ball or which of us was going to be the first to get married. Why did this feel different? It was still basically just folded paper with writing on it. Alissa’s fingers on the planchette were the same that laid precise creases into those paper finger boxes, and the elegant cranes, and multi-colored flowers and she gave out for Valentine’s Day five years ago. But now, we were asking the dead to give us answers. It was different since somewhere in the world there was a man pretending to be Jerome. It was different now that Mr. Dennett was getting phone calls from parents while Alissa was letting boys touch her in the parking lot or the soccer field where the high schoolers smoke cigarettes.
I tried to push the pointer to “N-O O-N-E.” I nudged it forward, but it moved against me. Across from me, knees on the carpet, Alissa stared at the letters on the board.
“Guys can we just—” I started to speak before the spirits reached out.
When the table shook even a little bit, Zoe bolted upright—stiff like a glass shard. Along the front of the Ouija board, Kate’s cell phone vibrated against the wooden table, and some combination of the intense buzz of the vibration and the little pop of light from the incoming text in the dim, silent room made us all jump. But, Zoe was the one who knocked the whole table over with a slam. Two lit tea candles rolled onto the carpet, but the flames puffed out and singed the carpet only slightly. Kate giggled and grabbed her phone, while my heart just raced.
Alissa grabbed the board and shoved it back into Stratego. “If my mom asks, we were telling ghost stories.”
Mrs. Rosalita didn’t come down. We didn’t set the board up again—that one good scare was worth the effort, and I think we all decided nothing that happened after would be as interesting. I certainly didn’t argue. Alissa rehearsed explanations for the burns in the carpet for when her mom eventually noticed.
“So who will Sara be dating?” Zoe asked.
“I think it was going for a J. Jeremy?”
“I thought it was going for the Y. I can’t even think of a Y name in our class.”
“Where you guys pushing it?”
“No,” I said.
I was angry when I got home the next day. There’s nothing real about the Ouija board. We all knew that. I knew that. I put on those socks the next morning, and they didn’t feel possessed. But it’s still better to not ask, I thought. I don’t know why it feels so much better not knowing. It feels so much better to sit on the boat with the Caribbean men—to never look at deep space, or to go spelunking, or to pay for a palm-reading. But the trouble is still out there, and ignorance doesn’t even slow it down. I know that.
I put my brothers’ necklace back on my dresser in front of the brigade of broken, bright-colored condors I had kept for years. They each had dust in their creased beaks. Their wings were starting to curl with age. I unfolded one slowly back to a flat square of construction paper with deep, dusty grooves. I took note of the sequence, step-by-step, so I could fold it back to shape—or maybe clean it off and fold it better. But it was undone.