Danielle Wilcox is a second-year MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago where she also teaches writing in the First-Year Writing Program. Her stories have appeared in Bird's Thumb magazine and the forthcoming Hair Trigger 36. She is from Michigan.
The first time they set up the Ouija board it takes the girls about an hour to realize they have to actually ask me a question. “Here goes nothing,” they say, and nothing is right. They sit with the board between them for awhile until one of them gets my hint.
They, Antonia and Pam, are the only two French horn players in their 6th grade middle school orchestra. Their mothers make them practice together. Even though I used to make fun of her for it, Pam is pretty much the bomb at her horn. She’s been playing it since she was so small I had to prop it up on her leg for her. Her grandma left it to her when she died. This is how Pam started playing, and I was wondering how her new friend, Antonia, came to play the same unpopular instrument, but I didn’t have to think long.
“I thought it sounded fancy,” she says to Pam, “but it just sounds like a whale dying,” and I think, well not always Antonia. Yours might sound like a whale dying, but not Pam’s. When my little sister plays, it sounds like a conch shell being blown by a beautiful mermaid. On a beach. Trying to cover up the sound of a whale dying.
When Antonia’s attempt at Danny Boy digresses into fart noises, she pops off the mouth piece to her horn, which she’s named Bruce, tips Bruce upside-down, and empties her spit onto the floor.
“Sorry,” she says to Pam, “but Danny Boy really takes it out of me.”
“It’s totally cool,” says Pam, even though it’s her room and her floor. “I don’t even care. Hey Antonia,” she says, hopping off the bed and reaching into her drawer. “Do you wanna ditch these horns, play the tape I made of scales real loud in case my mom comes home, play Ouija board, and split a bag of caramel apple suckers?”
“You can call me Toni,” Antonia says, taking the bag out of Pam’s hands.
So the girls kind of get down to business.
Toni tosses Bruce back into his case, and Pam rubs the bell of her horn with a blue cloth. Toni takes a seat on the floor next to her new spit pile. She has fake pink hair clipped into her brownish hair, and she accidentally tugs them when she runs her hands over her head. This makes me think she is stupid. Her t-shirt is too small for her belly but she doesn’t mind. She lets her belly stick out.
Pam is long and skinny like I was. Her bowl cut, thank god, is growing out. She wears long denim overall dresses and baggy jumpers and turtlenecks with horses or apples printed on them. She looks like a twelve year-old teacher.
She is in her closet digging through a secret box where she also hides foldout posters of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Hansen like they are porno magazines. She doesn’t want her mom to think she’s growing up too fast.
“Where did you get a Ouija board from?” Toni asks. “My mom says they’re illegal.”
“Your mom is a liar,” says Pam. “Maybe they are in like, Arkansas. But it doesn’t matter because I made mine.” The board is a cabinet door from under the bathroom sink that I watched Pam unhinge with a screwdriver last Saturday. It is the only thing in the apartment that isn’t plastic or covered in linoleum. Her mom isn’t home a lot and hasn’t noticed it’s missing. “But they should be illegal,” says Pam, sitting down and setting the board in between them. “It should be illegal how much fun we’re about to have.”
Antonia, who is pulling at the sucker with her front teeth, says, “Cool.” Strings of caramel catch on her lips and it is disgusting.
For the planchette, or what Antonia is now referring to as the glass for a mouse, Pam has super-glued a nail on its head to the inside bottom of a shot glass. She turns the glass upside-down so the nail points to the bubble letters she’s written on the cabinet door in purple sharpie. Hearts dot the i and j, and the words YES and NO are in opposite corners, surrounded by what looks to be stickers of unicorns hugging puppies.
“Why’s that nail so weird?” asks Antonia.
“It’s from the train track my brother died on,” says Pam. Most of the kids at their school have heard one form or another of how I’d died. Some kids said I parked my car on the tracks, some say the car broke down. It didn’t matter anymore.
But Toni looked like she’d never heard the story before. She plucked her sucker out and shoved her head back into her double chin.
“It’s okay,” Pam says. “He was just my step-brother. He just lived here for awhile,” and I awkwardly look around the room and ghost-whistle, which probably sounds like the wind blowing or a tree branch scratching against a window.
So there they are, the board and the mouse’s glass between the two of them.
“What do we do with it?” Toni asks, and I think, nothing, Toni. You look at it, Toni.
“We should put our fingers on it,” says Pam, and they do, thank god, but just when I think my little sister is about a million times smarter than her friend, Pam starts chanting, “Ouija Ouija Ouija, one two three, Ouija Ouija Ouija, Antonia and me,” which is not a song that I have ever heard before, nor a song that exists anywhere outside of Pam’s bowl-cut imagination. That is not how you reach out and touch a ghost, but it’s also not entirely unadorable either. I play along.
I get close and I crouch over Pam and Toni and I grab their bracelet-covered wrists. I move the mouse’s glass to the word YES. I let it hover, then I move it to the word NO, and I hope they get a notion that they have options here in this thing called life. Answers need questions, etc., but every time I think we’re making progress, freakin’ Toni has to pipe up.
“I think we just sit here and it moves,” she says.
So I move the shot glass back to the affectionate animal sticker near the word NO.
“Maybe we should ask it a question?” asks Pam.
“If you say so,” Toni the Genius says, “but I’m not so sure that’s right. What if you ask a bad question?”
Then you die, Antonia.
But then the front door of the apartment slams shut and Pam’s mom’s keys jingle and Pam jumps up and says, “Holy shit! We gotta move this contraband fast!” and back into the closet our conversation/not conversation goes, probably tucked in next to Jonathan Taylor Thomas leaning against a rugged brick wall wearing a backwards hat.
The next time the girls pull out the Ouija board they wait until Pam’s mom leaves to pick up a five-dollar large for them. This time they are much more professional and grown up about the whole ordeal. Pam lights candles and switches off the floor lamp of her bedroom. For a reason that doesn’t make sense to me, Antonia has decided to place a squirrel skull on the board she took from her brother’s tree fort. She pulls out a tube of black lipstick and puts it on.
“Whoa,” Pam says, “you look really scary.”
“Perfect,” says Antonia. “Also, I think I should do the asking tonight. I’m feeling very communicative.” She says communicative really slowly and it makes me think she recently saw the word for the first time and has been waiting to use it in a sentence.
The girls put their fingers on the mouse’s glass and close one eye.
“Okay,” Antonia says, and these are the questions they’ve decided to ask:
1. Are there any ghosts and/or spirits in the room?
I move them to YES.
2. Is said ghost maybe someone one of us used to know?
I move YES.
3. Is said ghost maybe possibly the deceased brother of the other person in the room which is to say her name is Pam?
And I move YES even though that last question was poorly worded. YES YES YES. And then I move their hands on the shot glass to the letter V, because V is for Victor.
Pam takes her hands away from the shot glass with my nail in it.
“I don’t want to play anymore,” she says. “Let’s go get some more candy. My mom has tons.”
“No way. We just got started.” This is the first smart thing Pam’s new friend has probably ever said in her life. “Besides, I had to wrestle my brother with sticks to get this squirrel skull away from him. Plus, it said V. V.”
“I know what it said,” Pam squeaks, “let’s just do it then.” I can see her tense up. My hands are still on top of their wrists, and Pam’s starting to shake, so I wrap my hand tight around my little sister’s and calm it down.
“Alright, let’s see about this ‘Victor.’” Antonia uses air quotes around my name. “The book in the library said sometimes spirits impersonate each other. So. We should ask a question first that only you would know the answer to.”
Pam looks around her bedroom. “Alrighty. Let’s see here,” she spots her French horn next to Bruce. “Alrighty, I’ve got it. Ask him what you call 600 French horns at the bottom of the sea.”
“That’s your question?” Toni asks, and Pam nods and Toni shrugs her shoulders like fine, it’s your question. “Alright, ‘Victor,’” air quotes again, then hands back on the shot glass. “We’d like to know what you call 600 French horns at the bottom of the sea,” she says, like it’s a test and not a joke.
I grab both of their wrists and start working that hideous board. I send it over to A. Pause. Then I move them over to G. Then O, then O, then D. Then I pause. Then I spell out S – T – A – R – T.
Pam giggles when I finish, but I think we’ve lost Toni.
“Ago ods tart? What’s ago ods tart?”
Wow. Antonia has no idea how valuable Pam will be to her in the future. “Oh, ha, I get it, I get it.” But I doubt that she actually does. We all go along with it anyway. “Great, hi Victor. Welcome,” and Toni spreads her arms out around her like she just invited me to the party.
Pam leans over the cabinet door and whispers into Antonia’s ear.
“Okay, change of plans, Victor. We only have one question for you. We would like to know if you parked your car on the railroad that night, or if it got stuck?”
I take my hands off of them and almost back into the floor lamp. What kind of twelve-year old question is that? Why didn’t they want to know what it was like to walk through walls, or hey Victor, could you throw some bread across the kitchen counter for us?
Pam’s all a mess, too. Her folded knees are jittering up and down like a baby bird trying to fly for the first time. She has her eyes closed tight and her are lips curled into her mouth.
But I do nothing. And when I do nothing, Toni lifts her head up and opens her other eye. She looks at Pam, then around the room. She bulges her eyes out at the corners of the walls and the ceiling. I think maybe she’s going to go for the bag of fun-size Milky Ways peeking out from under Pam’s bed, but instead she lowers her head and the shot glass starts moving. Pam opens an eye.
S – T – U – K.
S-t-u-k? Stuk, like stuck? Like, I’m Antonia and I don’t know how to spell the simple five-letter word stuck?
“Whoa,” she says to Pam, who’s exhaling and taking her hands off the shot glass. This time I’m grateful when Pam’s mom comes in with a pizza and a 2-liter of pop. Pam doesn’t have time to connect the misspelling to the new friend.
After they’ve eaten their pizza and watched a movie about a cowgirl learning the hokey pokey for the first time, the girls crawl into Pam’s bed and face each other. They talk about how much they hate the French horn and how much they wish they could get the sixth grade over with already. They agree they have to find some more friends if they’re going to pull off the Spice Girls for Halloween. They go into detail about how awesome Brent Mozier’s center-part is, and how much they love it when he leans back in his chair and makes it sound like his mouth is a faucet dripping water. They talk about the important things in life, and they leave the candle burning while they fall asleep so one can see the flickering reflect in the black wetness of the other’s eyes, or at least I think that’s why. But I’m probably wrong, because when you’re twelve it’s the last time the real story is not the same as what matters.