Even in a small town where no one has anything better to do than to gossip about their neighbors, there are some things so strange and terrible that no one will speak of them. It’s as if people think ignoring an event could erase it from history. They’re lying to themselves if they really believe that. You can pretend something never happened, but the fallout sinks into your bones and never goes away. Some things are just that bad. What happened to Sadie that night in the late summer of 1993 was one of those things.
No one will speak of that terrible time. I’ve been slapped in the mouth more than once for trying. The second time drew blood. I know the reason for the silence. I know perhaps more than anyone what exactly transpired, and I mean to tell it all here and now. I’m going to explain why, under the cover of darkness, someone set fire to Sadie’s house with her entire family trapped inside. I’m going to explain why they did the right thing.
As far as any of us could tell, the horror began labor day of 1993. Our entire cul-de-sac threw an enormous end of summer barbecue block party that ran from mid-morning to nightfall. Everyone gorged themselves on burgers and brisket, beans and slaw, and Mrs. Watkins’ world famous Ambrosia Salad. Family dogs wandered the street snuffling at castoff bones and begged for hot dogs until each and every one of them were as fit to burst as the rest of us. I myself emptied no less than eight Dr. Pepper cans, a personal record.
As darkness fell, Jeff’s dad set off a fireworks display that rivaled the town’s Fourth of July celebration. This signaled the end of the outdoor festivities, though not the end of the party. Five of the families, including my own, repaired to the Carmichael’s house for cocktails, dancing, and (I suspected) enough cocaine to keep the party going until dawn.
Sadie’s parents, the Carmichaels, owned the largest house on the block. It was a sprawling two story mini-mansion with a full basement and attic, five bedrooms, a wet bar, a billiards room, and no fewer than three and a half bathrooms. No one could adequately explain what Mr. Carmichael did for a living, but it evidently paid much more than my dad’s foreman position at the local meat packing plant. No one seemed to resent his success either. He was happy to spread it around, and practically bankrolled the entire block party.
There were seven of us kids who were old enough to tag along without younger kids to babysit, all of us between the ages of twelve and fourteen. A simmering cauldron of puberty, exiled to the upper floor for the duration of the nocturnal festivities. We had all lived here for our entire lives with the exception of Khalil Watkins, who moved in two houses down from me about three years prior.
We joked that he was our ‘token black friend,’ but only to shock our desperately politically correct parents. His actual claim to fame was a seemingly endless collection of dirty jokes. I later learned all these jokes came from a well-thumbed paperback he found in a truck stop bathroom when he was ten. I found this mildly disillusioning and sort of disgusting.
Jeff Holloway was my best friend, and his dad was my dad’s best friend. Heh, Funny how that works out, isn’t it? We had one of those friendships that was so close people either thought we were brothers or, as was the nomenclature of the time, “butt-buddies.” The hit movie that summer was Jurassic Park, and the two of us had seen it six times. We could quote it word for word and had been humming the theme song for weeks.
We spent the previous summer grounded and mired in the agony of separation. After having seen a film entitled Swamp Thing, he decided he wanted to reproduce one of the film’s most impressive stunts: A full body burn. We managed a partial pant-leg burn, and the gruesome blisters this produced were the source of much parental furor and no small amount of hoopla.
Ashley and Ashton Valentine were fraternal twins, both of them pale and towheaded with icy blue eyes. We called them The Children of the Corn and they called us assholes. Whatever. They knew they were creepy looking. They went everywhere in matching outfits holding hands until the fourth grade. They only stopped then because we kept picking on them about it, just as real friends do.
Jill Peters was probably my second best friend and my neighbor on the side opposite Sadie. We had the same interest in music, which tended toward the sort of punk and grunge music one would have to travel to a real city with a real record store to find. Her college-aged older sister was an invaluable source of music to both of us. The frequent care packages of mix tapes sustained us through the years when the closest radio station played all the Garth Brooks tunes you could stomach.
Our current obsession was an album by Green Day, who would not make it big with Dookie for another year. Kerplunk, which had come out a year earlier, had just reached us and was getting heavy rotation on our battered tape deck. I thought Jill had a crush on me, but I learned much later that she batted for the other team, so to speak. For all I know, she didn’t even know at the time.
Sadie, our gracious host, was my next door neighbor. She was blonde like the Valentines, but not in a creepy way. She was thirteen, tanned, and had just developed boobs, so naturally, half the school had a crush on her. I myself was more interested in her older sister, Eliza, whose room faced my own. One night I happened to be peering up at her window and caught a breathtaking sight: Eliza, beautiful, blonde, and seventeen: Bare. Ass. Naked. She stood before the window for at least five glorious seconds, until noticing my presence. She winked at me and shut the curtains. That moment has been playing in my head on a continuous loop ever since.
And then there’s me.
My name is Paul Davidson. I was about three months shy of thirteen at that point, and in some small way, all of this was my fault.
The movies I watched when I wasn’t watching Jurassic Park for the billionth time were mostly horror movies. I had seen every single horror movie the local video store had to offer, which was a lucky thing considering my age. The clerk at Epp’s Video Madness was a pizza-faced sixteen-year-old named Doug Jones who didn’t give a rat’s ass who rented R-rated movies as long as the owner wasn’t breathing down his neck. My favorite at the time was Return of the Living Dead, which boasted not only a punk-rock soundtrack but also full nudity. Ass and all!
I bring this up because it was my love of horror that compelled me to suggest we all tell ghost stories when we began to tire of board games and were at a loss for what to do next. Jill and Jeff backed me up, and Khalil and Ashton were game. Sadie and Ashley tried to protest, but as in all things, the majority ruled. I knew that Ashley scared easily and I was already planning a good jump-scare story to make her scream.
I told everyone to sit tight and ran downstairs in search of candles to set the mood. This was something of a stealth mission, as I knew we were forbidden from entering the bottom floor, for fear we would witness some tawdry act of debauchery and perhaps use it to blackmail our parents. From years of experience as an amateur spy, I knew these block parties tended to get fairly raucous after dark.
The living room and kitchen were the primary danger zones, but if I was quick and light-footed I thought I would find what I was looking for without risking detection in the downstairs back bathroom. The front bathroom would likely be the busiest, but the back bathroom, located nearest to Mr. Carmichael’s office and Mrs. Carmichael’s sewing room, would likely be deserted.
I skulked down the darkened hallway, imagining myself a ninja warrior in a martial arts movie, soundtrack provided by Whitney Houston. Twice in my journey I was nearly discovered. One of these near-discoveries was Mrs. Watkins and Mr. Peters, who were making out in an adjoining hallway under the cover of darkness. I doubt they would have had the nerve to bust me if they happened to notice my presence, but who knows? The hypocrisy of adults, I knew with all the wisdom of a jaded 12-year-old, knew no bounds.
The second near-discovery came at the final approach. I had nearly set my hand on the doorknob when it began to turn from the other side. I quickly ducked into Mr. Carmichael’s office until Mrs. Peters stumbled out, rubbing her nose and teetering from side to side. Would she notice her husband canoodling with my friend’s mom? Who knows? That was not my concern. I slipped into the bathroom, already conveniently lit. A mirror lay next to the sink confirming my suspicions. Traces of white powder still clung to the reflective surface.
On the back of the toilet was my prize: Atop a silver plate was a selection of scented candles, none of which had ever been lit. The smell of lavender wasn’t quite right for scary stories, but it would have to do.
The return trip was without incident. I crept up the stairs already home free but hungry for mischief. From Sadie’s bedroom I could hear the sound of uproarious laughter, and I knew that Khalil was telling another one of his nasty jokes. The perfect distraction.
The door was ajar, the sole source of light upstairs. I slipped a hand through the doorway and flipped off the light. In the ensuing confusion, I slipped in among the others and took a seat. Before anyone could flip the light back on I struck a match to a chorus of gasps and lit the lavender candle.
“Good evening,” I said, doing my best Vincent Price, which strongly resembled a terrible Vincent Price. My voice cracked. “The time has come for tales of the macabre. Who will go first?”
“Hey I got one,” Khalil called out. We all turned to him, seated at Sadie’s vanity table. The chair looked ill-equipped to hold him. At thirteen he was already over six feet tall, with arms and legs that seemed to stretch on to infinity. The basketball coach wanted him, of course, but sadly his height did not come with coordination and thus far his major contribution to the team has been keeping the bench safe and warm. He did improve over the years, but a bit of torn cartilage in his left knee dashed those dreams away midway through his senior year.
I passed the candle to him, already knowing what to expect. Judging by the wary expressions the others wore in the dim, flickering light, I could tell they did too. He set the candle on the vanity so he could free the use of his arms as he spoke.
“There was once a lonely old hotel in the middle of nowhere,” Khalil started, so softly we all had to lean in close to hear, “A terrible storm was brewing and motorists from all over pulled in off the highway to get out of all that weather. Pretty soon the hotel was full up.
“Some traveling salesman walks in, dripping wet and looking like he’s gonna freeze solid. He tells the clerk, ‘Hey man, give me a room.’
“Clerk says, ‘We only got one room left, but it’s haunted.’
“Salesman says, ‘I don’t care, give me the keys.’
“So the salesman walks into the room, throws his jacket on the chair and sits on the bed. Right away something wasn’t right. He heard a voice coming from inside the closet.
“It said, ‘I got you where I want you, now I’m going to eat you!’
“Well the salesman didn’t need to hear no more, he busts out the door and makes a run for it, drops dead right there with a heart attack before he’s halfway to the car.
“Next comes some big burly biker. Clerk tells him the same thing, biker says he’s a rough tough biker son a bitch and he ain’t afraid of no haunts. Well, same thing happens, he hears that creepy voice in the closet say ‘I got you where I want you, now I’m going to eat you!’ He jumps straight out the window and drops dead, white as a sheet.”
By this point we’re all leaning in, eager to see where this is going. Khalil has a devilish grin on his face as he spins his yarn.
“Finally this grizzled old hippy comes strolling in, his beard and shaggy hair all plastered to his head. He’s got a soggy guitar case on his back and he’s just about soaked to the bone. He’d been out on the interstate hitching across the country and he was just about ready to keel over.
“Clerk says, ‘Well we got a room, but it’s haunted and two people have already died there this very night!’
“’That’s cool, man,’ says the hippy, ‘Couple of ghosts won’t confront me none.’
“So he takes the keys and settles into his room. He strips his clothes off, lights up a joint, and begins to pluck out a tune on his guitar. Pretty soon he hears that sinister voice from the closet.
“’I’ve got you where I want you, now I’m going to eat you’
“’Far out, man!’ the hippy says, takes another puff and keeps playing.
“Again, louder this time, the voice calls out, ‘I’ve got you where I want you, now I’m going to eat you!’
“But the hippy doesn’t listen. Just keeps smoking, just keeps playing. Just like he said, the ghost doesn’t confront him none.
“This time the voice yells out, ‘I’VE GOT YOU WHERE I WANT YOU, NOW I’M GOING TO EAT YOU!’
“Well, enough was enough. The hippy throws his guitar aside, opens the closet, and there he sees…”
We lean in ever closer. No one breathes. Khalil holds the moment as long as he can. Finally, Ashley asks, “Well? What did he see?”
“He sees…” Khalil whispered, then cried out, “A monkey with a booger on his finger, telling it ‘I’ve got you where I want you, now I’m going to eat you!’ and he pops the booger in his mouth!”
Khalil roared laughter over a sea of groans. Sadie lobbed a stuffed animal at him, beaning him right in the forehead.
“Watch out, man! The candle!” Khalil cried.
There was a lull following Khalil’s terrible story. We all sat there, no one wanting to follow such a travesty. Finally, it was Jill who saved story time. She gestured for the candle and said, “I’ve got one. A real one.”
Khalil passed Jill the candle, still wiping tears from his eyes. Jill held the candle under her face, the shadows transforming her features into something ghoulish.
“A lot of people don’t know this,” she began, “but years ago an insane asylum closed down just a few miles down the road from here. When they closed the place down they didn’t move the crazies to other asylums. They just threw them out on the streets. Most of them were harmless, but one of them was a psychotic killer…”
Jill’s story was a little cliché, just a slight variation on the old ‘hook hand on the car door’ story, but it did the trick. The mood was set. One by one, each of us told our own campfire story as the room filled with the aroma of laundry detergent. Well, except for Ashley and Ashton. They told their story together as if they had rehearsed the whole thing in advance. It was not bad, actually. I think their whole ‘Children of the Corn’ vibe helped them along. At the end of every tale there were shrieks, nervous giggles, and wide eyes all around.
Sadie was last. Out of all of us, she was the easiest to scare. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even expect her to have a story to share, but she did. She stared into the candle flame for a minute, as if gathering her thoughts, or maybe she was gathering the nerve to share her tale.
Finally, she said, “This house is haunted. I guess that’s my scary story.”
Ashley scoffed, and Ashton spoke for her, saying, “Um, didn’t your dad have this house built himself? How is a new house haunted?”
“I don’t know,” Sadie said, defensively, “It just is. When I was little I thought it was the boogeyman. I thought he lived in my closet and every night I screamed bloody murder to my parents because I could hear him in there, shuffling around and scratching at the door. They’d bust in, shine a flashlight into the closet and show me it was empty. As if that was supposed to make me feel better.
“Eventually I had this whole ritual before bed to make it so the boogeyman couldn’t get me in the night. I slept with earplugs in so I couldn’t hear him scratching, and I made a sort of fort out of pillows and blankets. I could sleep then, and every morning I would wake up knowing my ritual worked because I didn’t get eaten.
“A few years went by and I got a little older and I learned that the boogeyman wasn’t real. It was just something babies believed in because they were scared to sleep alone. The whole nightly ritual of earplugs and blanket forts seemed kind of stupid, you know? I didn’t not get eaten because of blankets, I didn’t get eaten by the boogeyman because there was no boogeyman to begin with. I congratulated myself on coming to such a grown-up decision.”
“So what happened?” I asked. I was genuinely riveted by this. As a horror movie junkie, I was thrilled at the idea that one could be happening next door.
“The boogeyman ate her, dummy!” Khalil cried, “She’s the ghost! Get it?”
This time a torrent of stuffed animals pelted Khalil until he cried mercy.
“Go on,” Ashley urged.
“Tell us,” Ashton suggested.
“Okay,” Sadie said, at last, cutting her eyes at Khalil, “But no more jokes. I don’t really like talking about this because it freaks me out.”
Khalil held up his hands in surrender and made a lip-zipping gesture. Sadie found this satisfactory and went on.
“Well, the very first night I stopped doing my ritual, I heard the sounds again. I was older and wiser enough to wonder if maybe it was a rat, which is freaky enough on its own. But the sound…It doesn’t sound like a rat would sound. Like you would think a rat would sound like small scratches like this:”
She scratched at the footboard of her bed to demonstrate. Small scratches. Next, she stood up and crossed to the wall next to her closet. There was a poster on the door of Madonna. Sadie always loved Madonna.
“The sound kind of sounded like footsteps walking around, like people footsteps, sort of. Heavier than a rat’s footsteps, at least. And I could hear a sound like this against the closet door.”
She rubbed her palms against the surface of the door, making a distinctive sound like someone searching for the doorknob in the dark. Every once in a while she would slap the wall lightly as if she was trying to push it open.
“You see what I mean?” She asked. We nodded. “It does that every night. By then I knew what a ghost was, I had watched that awful movie with the weird name. What’s it called? Putter…. putter guy?”
“Poltergeist,” I suggested.
“That’s the one,” She agreed. “I saw that movie and it scared the heck out of me because it was just like what I heard. I couldn’t even finish watching it, I had to leave halfway through. But the rubbing and the slapping sound, the footsteps, that’s not the worst part. I could hear voices too. Well, whispers. For a while, I just thought that was the sound of my parents, but their room is too far away, and it sounded like it was coming just from the other side of the wall. Like, inside the wall. Do you know what I mean?”
We nodded. No one wanted to interrupt, even to agree verbally.
“I could never make out what the whispers were saying,” She said, staring at a nondescript spot by the closet. “I even put my ear right up to the wall where I could hear it. The sounds weren’t coming from the closet at all, you see? They were coming from inside the wall. But even with my ear to the wall they just sounded like whispers. I hated it. I started playing music at night while I tried to sleep and that helped. The sounds were never loud enough that I could hear it over the stereo.”
“Did you ever… see anything?” Ashton asked.
“Like a spirit, you mean? Some floating sheet with like, eye holes?” Sadie asked. Ashton nodded. “No, just the sounds. But it must be a ghost, what else could it be?”
We pondered this for a moment. No one had a solid suggestion, except perhaps that she imagined the whole thing. No one wanted to say so, though, for fear of offending her. We were stumped.
“So wait,” Jeff said, “we’re all here, it’s late at night. Do you think we’ll hear the sounds?”
Sadie frowned, and said, “Probably not. Nobody else in my family has ever heard anything, and once I made my sister switch rooms with me for the night. She told me she stayed up half the night waiting for a noise and ended up sleeping like a baby.”
“Dang,” Jeff said. It was a disappointment I at least shared with him. The Children of the Corn and Khalil looked almost relieved. Jill seemed deep in thought.
“I have an idea,” Jill said at last. All eyes turned to her and she blushed at the sudden attention, but she didn’t back down. “We can hold a séance, and see what the spirit wants, maybe get it to move on to the other side and leave you alone. I have a Ouija Board at home we could use. I could run out and get it, five minutes tops.”
“What the hell is a…” Ashton began, then lost the word.
“Ouija Board?” Ashley finished for him, uncertainly.
“It’s a board with the alphabet spelled out on it,” Jill explained, “along with like ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘goodbye.’ Everybody puts their fingertips on a pointer thing-”
“It’s called a planchette,” I supplied.
“Right,” she said. “Anyways, we all put our fingertips on the planchette and ask the spirits to talk to us and it like, moves the planchette on its own. It can spell out answers to our questions and we can talk to it that way. We can ask it to leave you alone.”
“Well that sounds like some devil worshiping shit to me,” Khalil said.
“It’s not,” Jill protested, “honestly, it’s totally safe. I use it all the time.”
“And it works?” Ashley asked.
“Well,” Jill said cautiously, “sort of. It’s hard to tell if like a ghost is moving the planchette or if your friend is, you know what I mean? That’s kind of the fun of it. So what do you think?”
We all had our opinions on the matter, but in the end, it came down to Sadie’s decision. Her ghost, her house, her rules. She appeared to give the matter serious thought.
“Okay, let’s do it,” She said at last. “But if I get freaked out and I want to stop, we stop. Okay?”
“Deal,” Jill said and jumped up immediately to fetch her board. The rest of us stayed behind.
There was a lull in the conversation. Everyone just sort of sat back and watched the shadows flicker around the room. All this talk about ghosts seemed to have everyone one edge, and those shadows almost seemed like specters surrounding us. It was fun to be scared, though. More fun anyway than another round of spades or discussing whether or not the scientists really could bring dinosaurs back to life with DNA. It was like an adventure, like we were the Goonies or something, only with less traipsing around in the sewers.
From downstairs there was a crash and everyone jumped, eyes as big as Frisbees. Jeff and Khalil were already at the door before we heard the roar of drunken laughter float up to us from below. Just our drunk-ass parents stumbling around, maybe with party games of their own.
Nights like these were always so strange to me. Our parents were mostly pretty young, in their mid-thirties or so. As old as I am now. I can understand with this newfound perspective how people their age might still want to cut loose every once in a while and add some craziness to their dull lives. Back then, it seemed like our ordinary straight-laced parents would disappear for an evening and be replaced by completely different people. People who wanted to make out with strangers, snort coke, be the life of the party.
On nights like this, we were interlopers, unwelcome presences, tethers to the real world of careers and families and mortgages. That’s why they kept us with babysitters or exiled us to basements or upper floors when we got old enough to watch ourselves for an evening. So they could forget us and be those other people. Like I said, I understand it now.
It’s not like we wanted to party with them anyway, you understand. We were happier up here, but it was still alienating. At our age, we felt trapped in a purgatory where we were no longer children but far from adults. The oldest of us couldn’t even drive yet. The youngest of us was already showing the wages of puberty’s hormonal warpath.
This seems like a tangent, I know, but I’m trying to make a point here. My point is that we lived in a strange time and we lived in a strange world. We were no longer the people we thought we were but we weren’t yet the people we would become. Our parents were still our moms and dads, but we were seeing them as something entirely heretofore unsuspected: Real people. So maybe that’s why we didn’t see the signs when things started to go terribly wrong, only once they became too wrong to possibly ignore.
We all jumped again when a violent knocking came at the window. There in the darkness was a silhouette that only obtained definition when the shape pressed its face against the glass: It was Jill. We sighed and Sadie crossed to the window to let her in. It had been a while since any of us had used the secret entrance, gained by climbing up the tree in Sadie’s yard and shuffling down a branch that overhung the patio roof.
Jill laughed as she pulled herself through the portal and rejoined the group. She said, “Sorry if I scared you guys. I couldn’t get back in the way I came. Jeff and Khalil’s dads were standing out there passing a cigarette back and forth. I almost got caught.”
She was wearing her school backpack, which was once green but was now so covered with patches and band logos scrawled in permanent marker that green had become the minority in its color scheme. Its contents bulged through the canvas in a mass of odd angles. She began to unpack it onto the floor and narrated its contents.
“Okay so here’s the Ouija board, as promised,” She said, pulling the same sort of cardboard box that any board game might come in.
Khalil took the box and announced, “This thing is made by Parker Brothers! You’re telling me this thing’s a portal to the spirit world by the makers of Scrabble?”
“Shut up, Khalil,” I said, not unkindly. He actually had a good point but I didn’t want him to ruin the mood.
“You shut up, Pauuul,” Khalil returned, chucking a stuffed animal at me. He didn’t press the point, though. Actually, he seemed a little calmer for his discovery. I guess he didn’t figure the good people at Parker Brothers would endorse actual devil worshiping. I held the stuffed animal, which was a glittery unicorn sporting a rainbow-colored mane that I recognized from those folders and notebooks little girls seemed to love so well. I watched Jill continue to detail her treasures with this disruption at an end.
“Anyways, Khalil,” Jill said, fishing a couple of strange looking white sprigs, a bowl, and a lighter out of the bag, “I also brought some sage. I’ve read that if you burn sage it like, wards off evil ghosts.”
“It’s also a-good on-a spaghetti!” Jeff cried, taking on a terrible Italian accent. Jill glared at him but continued the unpacking process.
“I brought a couple more candles too. Just to sort of set the mood, I guess.” I took the candles from her and lit them, “Um, I also grabbed us some snacks, just because. Pad and paper, to write down whatever the spirits spell out for us. And one more thing.”
Jill had a mischievous glint in her eye that I had seen before. This glint always spelled trouble.
“Well,” Sadie asked, “What is it?”
“It’s a surprise,” Jill told us. “For after the séance.”
We all protested and begged her to reveal her secrets, but she held the bag close to her and shook her head. I knew we wouldn’t sway her. Years of experience taught me this.
“Let’s set it up,” I said, still curious but wishing for no further ado.
We set up the board, which of course was no complicated matter. The only things in the box were the board itself, which merely needed to be unfolded, the planchette, and a sheet of paper with instructions. This was left in the box unread.
Jill laid out the instructions for us. “First of all, guys, it’s very important none of you crack any jokes or otherwise act like an a-hole. The spirits don’t like to be mocked and we don’t need peeved off spirits on our hands, understand?”
We all nodded, but I noticed Khalil suppressing a smile. Taking things seriously was not exactly his strong suit, but he did know when to rein it in. Sometimes he was even successful at it.
“Secondly, Sadie will be asking the questions. It’s her ghost, her show.” Sadie’s eyes widened at this, but she said nothing, “I’ll support her and transcribe the messages. The rest of you gather around the board and place your fingertips on the planchette, very lightly. Don’t press down hard, just sort of touch it.”
We obeyed her instructions, crowding around the board and laying claim to two fingertips worth of plastic. With our spare hands, we clung to one another, mostly just so we wouldn’t fall over. Sadie sat in front of the board holding the lavender candle. The other two were set at the top two corners. There was just enough light to see the board. We looked up at Jill expectantly.
“Okay,” Jill said, her eyes glittering in the light. I could see she was as excited as I was. Sadie looked frightened, though not yet ready to back down. “I’ll get us started, then Sadie you start asking questions.”
“What kind of questions?” Sadie asked, bewildered.
“Oh, just like ‘who are you,’ ‘what do you want,’ that sort of thing. Whatever you can think of. The rest of you, when she asks the question, just concentrate on the question. Don’t form an answer in your mind, just think about the question. Got it?”
We got it. Jill nodded, satisfied.
“I am addressing the spirits in this house,” She declared, staring out into space and reaching out with her hands. I suspected this was for dramatic effect. “We, the living, wish to speak to you. We wish to speak to the spirits who have been trying to contact our friend, Sadie Carmichael.”
She set her hand on Sadie’s shoulder. Sadie jumped just a little, but smiled at Jill and patted her hand.
“Are you willing to speak to Sadie and answer her questions?” She asked.
We waited, and stared at the board. At first, there was nothing, and then slowly the planchette began to move. Inch by inch, bit by bit, steadily it crawled until it landed in the top right of the board. The window at the point of the planchette rested right over the word ‘No.’
We glanced at each other uncertainly. The planchette then jerked back to the center of the board.
“That’s weird,” Jill said, frowning. “They don’t usually refuse like that. Usually, the spirits want to talk. None of you moved it?”
We all shook our heads and refused. I didn’t move it, I knew that, and I was staring right at the planchette. I didn’t see anyone’s fingers flex, or any other sign that anyone might be cheating. It was so hard to tell, though.
Jill said, “Hmm. Okay, Sadie, why don’t you try? Maybe it just doesn’t want to talk to me, just you.”
Sadie swallowed hard, but said, “Okay. Spirits, this is Sadie Carmichael. If the spirits I hear at night trying to speak to me are… present, please, will you speak to me now?”
We stared at the planchette again, and it began to move immediately. Right back to ‘No.’ Next, it crawled to ‘Goodbye,’ and then back to the center. Sadie glanced back at Jill, but Jill just shrugged. Sadie addressed the spirits once again.
“Please, spirits,” Sadie begged, “please speak to me. I only wish to know what you want from me. Won’t you speak with me?”
The planchette darted straight for ‘No,’ then straight for ‘Goodbye,’ then back to ‘No,’ and on like this again and again until we all pulled our hands away from the board and sat back. The planchette spun in place once and fell still. We all stared at Jill, our would-be spirit guide. Her face reddened and she shrugged yet again.
“What can I say?” Jill said, “If the spirits don’t wanna talk, they don’t wanna talk. I guess that’s how it goes sometimes.”
“Well, what am I going to do, then?” Sadie asked. She wasn’t crying, but her eyes glistened. I could tell that in her own way, she was as disappointed as I was. “What am I supposed to do about all these noises?”
Jill pondered her question, then lit up, “I have an idea! Use the sage! Tonight before you go to bed, just burn the sage and sort of wave it around the room, in the closet, all over. That should help. If it doesn’t, maybe you and I could try with the Ouija board by ourselves. Maybe the spirits just didn’t feel comfortable with all of us here at the same time. Something like that.”
“Okay,” Sadie said. She seemed only mildly encouraged, at best. She stared at that spot on the wall by the closet door.
“Okay!” Khalil declared, markedly more energetically, “The Unsolved Mysteries portion of the evening has concluded. What’s next?”
“Ah!” Jill said, smiling again and reaching into her bag for the secret item, “What’s next is we drink the rest of this bottle of rum I stole from Sadie’s parents!”
The rest of us cheered regardless of whether or not we actually wanted to try alcohol. I didn’t, not exactly, but of course I had my share. I thought it tasted like medicine spiked with battery acid and nearly choked on my first sip. I wasn’t the only one. We all tried at least a couple of swigs.
Needless to say, the rest of the evening kind of got away from us. Before long we had all forgotten about our failed séance and Sadie’s ghost. That final few ounces of spiced rum lingering in the bottle was enough to get all of us feeling pretty toasty.
I only remember a few details, like the apocalyptic teddy bear fight, Jeff trying to cop a feel on Ashley and getting Ashton by mistake, and Khalil puking out the window and onto the roof. He returned from the bathroom several minutes later with his mouth smelling mostly of mouthwash and demanded another swig to redeem himself.
I have no idea how late it was when the bottle came to me completely empty. It was late-late. Wee hours late. Sadie was trying to get a game of Truth or Dare going, I think. My head was buzzing and I wasn’t really paying attention, at least not until Jeff called on me.
“Paulie!” Jeff demanded, “Truth or Dare?”
“Truth?” I offered. I didn’t want to get up for a dare.
“Hmm…” he considered, “Have you ever seen anyone’s boobs- in real life, not just in your dad’s porno mags?”
“Yes,” I said, not considering my present company, “I saw Eliza’s tits once. Bush too.”
“What the hell Paul!” Sadie cried, “You little perv!”
“She flashed me!” I said, “There was nothing I could do!”
“You saw Eliza’s beaver?!” Khalil asked, incredulous, “Tell me you saw the ass, too!”
“Shut up, Khalil!” Sadie demanded, “Paul, I’m gonna tell her you’ve been peeking on her, she’s going to kick your ass!”
“I wasn’t peeking! It was an accident, I swear,” I told her. That wasn’t exactly true, I just never expected all my spying to pay off so well. “Look, there’s my answer. So uh… Ashton, truth or dare?”
“Uh…. Dare,” he said.
“I dare you to…” I groped for an idea, and my eyes found the empty bottle of rum laying before me, “I dare you to spin the bottle, and whoever it lands on you have to kiss. No matter what. On the mouth, too.”
A kid as fair-skinned as Ashton blushed like a stop light, but to his credit, he did not try to contest my dare. He simply held out his hand for the bottle while the rest of us gathered around in a loose circle.
“Homie, that bottle better not land on me,” Khalil said, “You try to kiss me, I’ll knock you out.”
“Hey!” I said, “The bottle is law. He kisses whoever it lands on, fair and square.”
Ashton spun the bottle as hard as he could, and we all watched as though our lives depended on it. I prayed, after all my ‘bottle is law’ talk, that it would not land on me. All I wanted was to pull focus from the whole Eliza’s boobs thing. Slowly the bottle came to a stop, and who did it land on? Ashley, that’s who. Of course, we all crowed and goaded Ashton, who gamely gave his sister a chaste kiss on the mouth. Both of them were roughly the color of fire hydrants when all was said and done.
“Okay,” Khalil said, “I like this game. Let’s play this.”
“No, please,” Ashley said, looking like she wanted to sink into the floor.
“Wait!” Jill said, “How about this? How about instead of a kiss in front of everyone, we do Seven Minutes in Heaven?”
“What the hell is that?” I asked, immediately regretting revealing my ignorance.
“You don’t know? Jeez, Paulie, you’ve never lived,” Jeff said.
“Basically,” Jill said, “Whoever’s turn it is, they spin the bottle. Whoever it lands on goes with them into the closet and, uh…”
“They make out for seven minutes.” Sadie finished. Her eyes danced.
“No, no!” Ashton protested.
“Okay,” Khalil said, “how about this: if you land on your sister, or like, another dude, you spin again. How’s that?”
We hashed out the rules for a few minutes, but with the game on the table there wasn’t exactly any backing out. Since Ashton took the last truth or dare, he had the right to assign the first spinner. He chose Jeff.
“All right, ladies,” Jeff said, exuding false confidence, “one of you is in for the time of your life. Who’s it gonna be, who’s it gonna be?”
He gave the bottle a vigorous spin and we all waited with bated breath. Whoever the bottle landed on would get up close and personal with Jeff’s cheese curl scented mouth. Khalil provided a drum roll.
We sat boy-girl-boy-girl, and it landed halfway between Ashton and Sadie. By the predetermined rules, that meant the round went to Sadie. This was a big moment. Jeff has had a crush on Sadie since roughly the first grade when she gave him her extra eraser during a spelling lesson.
With a big dopey grin on his face, Jeff stood up and offered a hand to Sadie. Sadie did not protest, which I considered to be a good sign. She simply took his hand and let him lead her to the closet to a chorus of catcalls and wolf whistles. As they entered, Jill set a timer on her watch and said,
“Seven Minutes in Heaven. Neither of you comes out until we say, understand?”
They nodded and entered the closet hand in hand. Outside we all watched the closet door, cheering and generally acting like assholes. Despite my knowledge of the female anatomy, I had never kissed a girl before and my heart was fluttering wildly with the anticipation of my own turn.
It’s funny, you never know at the time when you’ve experienced a rite of passage. Or at least, I think that’s how it usually works. That night, that was a rite of passage for all of us. It should have been a normal one too, the sort that kids our age all over the world would experience in one form or another. A mundane though meaningful initiation into the wider world of relationships and, hopefully, eventually, love. All that normal, boring, everyday crap that made life worth living.
When the timer hit five minutes and thirty-five seconds, we realized that would not be the case here. The closet door with its Madonna poster swung open and Jeff stumbled back out into the room. His lip was smeared with Sadie’s lipstick, but the rest of his face was as white as cottage cheese.
“There was someone in there,” he muttered. I might have been the only once close enough to have heard him, though I didn’t know what he meant.
“Yeah,” I said, “Sadie was in there, you freak. It’s only been five minutes. Is she that bad a kisser?”
“Guys?” Ashley said, peering into the closet, “There’s no one in here.”
We all gathered around and stared inside. All except for Jeff, who just stumbled to the other side of the room and sat against the wall, his face buried in his arms. We stared into the closet, but all we saw were the clothes hanging on the rack and a couple of shoe boxes on the floor. Sadie was gone.
Well, there was nothing to do then but to tell our parents. We examined the closet thoroughly and futilely, perhaps hoping that Mr. Carmichael had, for reasons of his own, installed a secret door that Sadie could have escaped through. Naturally, there was nothing on the other side but the next room, and Sadie wasn’t there either.
No one, of course, wanted to go downstairs and tell a bunch of drunk adults that Sadie had vanished into thin air, so we all went down together. The air in the living room where they all had gathered was thick with smoke and the thunderous sound of some song from the seventies where some high-voiced singer crooned about leaving some babe.
Together we called for everyone’s attention and received a dozen or so eyes, red-rimmed and hostile at the intrusion. We explained the situation as best we could while carefully editing the more controversial elements of our story, such as the drinking and making out. Our story was met with little patience and much disbelief, but at our continued insistence, our claims were taken with some modicum of seriousness.
Mrs. Carmichael finally spoke up, her eyes closed and her head tilted back over the headrest of the couch. She said, “Dammit, Charles, would you just go up there and look?”
Mr. Carmichael, who was smoking a cigar with my father and paying little attention to all the fuss, rolled his eyes and stomped after us. We had already turned back to the stairs, prepared to lead him to our mystery. He had his cigar clenched in his teeth and his left eye was watering in the smoke. His normally well-manicured hair was all corkscrews and I could tell he was as drunk as I had ever seen him.
“This had better be good,” Mr. Carmichael growled, “We told you kids to stay upstairs and behave yourselves.”
“We were behaving!” Ashley and Ashton proclaimed in unison.
Jill took the helm. She affected the punk-rocker’s disdain for authority figures but she knew how to deal with them most of the time. She said, “We’re not sure what happened. We were just playing a game and Sadie was in the closet. But when we checked in there, she was gone. We didn’t see her leave and we can’t find her anywhere.”
“Dammit, Jillian,” Mr. Carmichael barked, “Sadie’s just playing a joke on you. She’s hiding somewhere laughing at you all for being a bunch of dummies.”
He stormed into Sadie’s bedroom first and scanned the room. All the candles were still lit and they had burned down fairly low, tiny flames dancing on a pool of melted wax. He scooped them all up and blew them out in turn.
“You damn kids are gonna burn the house down. Who said you could light candles up here? And is that one of my damn liquor bottles? If I find out you’ve been drinking up here you’re gonna be stuck with a babysitter until you’re all eighteen.”
We said nothing, just stood there sheepishly with our hands behind our backs. It seemed like the safest course of action. Mr. Carmichael threw the closet door open and stuck his head in as if there were anything to see that he couldn’t see from the outside. Sadie, of course, still wasn’t there. He grunted and slammed the door shut. Next he checked under the bed, and still, he found nothing.
“Sadie!” he bellowed, “You get out here this instant, missy! I’m not playing around!”
Mr. Carmichael checked all of the upstairs rooms, in turn, calling for Sadie over and over again, a little bit of his tiny reserve of patience eroding with every repetition. Closets were flung open, beds were checked, curtains were drawn, and the crawlspace was thoroughly investigated. He sent Khalil and myself into the attic to no avail and finally directed all of us to spread out and check all the rooms again individually. There was no trace whatsoever of Sadie.
Now furious, Mr. Carmichael stomped down the staircase bellowing Sadie’s name and cursing all the while. We stood at the second-floor landing, knowing the situation was out of our hands. I can’t say what everyone else was thinking at that moment, but we all knew that Sadie was not going to be found anywhere in the house. We were all watching that door, and it was impossible to think that she could have gotten out of there without any of us noticing.
I turned to Jeff, who had been following us without a word the entire time. Not that any of us felt particularly talkative, mind you. His face was still pale and he had not bothered to wipe the lipstick from his lips. It looked almost clownish in a way. In any other situation, I would have teased him endlessly. Now I just wanted to know what he knew.
“Jeff,” I said to him. He turned to me slowly and said nothing. “What happened in there?”
“There was someone else in there.” He whispered. “At first it was just me and Sade. We kissed a little. Then she said something like ‘did you hear that?’ and I said ‘no,’ but I did hear something. I heard it right after she asked.”
“What did you hear?” Ashley asked. She was standing right on the other side of us. She was holding hands with her brother, though I don’t think either of them realized it.
“Voices. Not you guys. I don’t know who they were, but they were right next to us in the closet. I could feel their breath on the back of my neck. Could smell it. It stank. Like a cat’s breath stinks, only worse. Then I could feel them, feel hands all over me. I was gonna scream, but then I sort of fell over. Because I was leaning on Sadie and she wasn’t there anymore. Just like poof! Out of thin air. I was alone. That’s when I busted out of there.”
“Could you tell what they were saying?” Ashton asked. There was a sort of ruckus from below, in the living room. Mr. Carmichael must have been rallying the other adults to form a search party.
“Yeah. One of them was saying ‘Sadie, Sadie, Sadie,’ over and over like that. The others were just, like, copying us. One said ‘did you hear that?’ and the other said ‘no,’ again and again.”
“Who were they?” I asked, mostly rhetorically.
Jeff didn’t say anything for a while, just stood there staring down over the banister as the adults poured out from the living room in groups of two and three. Finally, softly, he said, “What.”
“Huh?” I said.
“Not who, what. What were they?” He frowned. “I don’t think they were people.”