Sam Weller is the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury. His book The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (William Morrow) was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and winner of the 2005 Society of Midland Authors Award for Best Biography. The companion book, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, was published by Melville House/Stop Smiling Books in 2010. With Mort Castle, Weller co-edited the short fiction anthology Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (William Morrow Paperbacks), winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. Weller is the former Midwest Correspondent for Publishers Weekly. His essays have appeared in the Paris Review, on the National Public Radio Program All Things Considered, Slate magazine, Huffington Post and many others. His short fiction has appeared in numerous books, literary journals, and magazines. Weller is a frequent lecturer on the life and legacy of Ray Bradbury. He has given over 300 talks around the world. Weller is the associate chair of the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Learn more at www.samweller.net and www.listentotheechoes.com.
Conjuring Danny Squires
There’s a toy manufacturer named Hasbro. They’re best known for making G.I. Joe, Rubik’s Cube, and Baby Alive. Believe it or not, Hasbro has a direct communication line to the spiritual world. I’m talking about the Ouija Board. Hasbro makes that, too. And for one summer we used it to talk to our friend Danny.
That July, all the yards in our subdivision were scorched brown by the relentless sun. The little parcels of grass in front of all the homes looked like beds of straw. The temperature was over ninety degrees for something like three weeks straight. The neighbor’s dog, Nixon, a wirehair terrier, sat outside day after day, chained up, head hanging low, her hind leg occasionally twitching away a buzzing fly. When I think of the term, “the dog days of summer,” I think of her, old Nixon. My little sister Maeve and I would regularly bring out a fresh bowl of water for her. Maeve even put ice cubes in it, but they melted right away.
One day, our friend Troy Gobel came over with a board game tucked under his arm. He was gangly, taller than most kids in the eighth grade, and he wore coke bottle glasses, the thickest you’d ever seen. Maeve and I were in the basement on the saggy couch, watching The Munsters. We didn’t have air conditioning, and drank pitcherfuls of Kool-Aid that left electric blue stains above our upper lips.
“Check it out,” he said. He sat down next to us on the brown plaid couch that once belonged to my grandma. We got it after she died. It still smelled like lavender and cigarettes.
Troy pulled out the box he was carrying.
OUIJA: Mystifying Oracle
“A new game!” Maeve kicked her feet up and down.
“You can use this to talk to the dead,” said Troy.
“That don’t work.” I shook my head. “It’s like the Magic Eightball.”
“No, it’s for real. Steve Swanson told me he once contacted Abraham Lincoln with it.”
“What did Abe Lincoln say?” asked Maeve, bending her head and peering at the boxtop, obscuring most of it with her untamed beechwood blonde hair.
“The game board spelled out ‘Ford,’ and then they lost their connection. It’s a bummer cause that would have been really cool.”
“Steve Swanson is full of crap,” I said.
“Whatever,” Troy shot back. “You going to try it with me, or what?”
“Yeah!” said Maeve. “I hope we get someone good to talk to us.”
“It needs to be dark down here,” said Troy, looking around the basement. He stood up and walked to the bottom of the stairs and flipped the overhead fluorescent lights off. The only light source—the blazing dayglow of high summer—now came from three fishtank-sized basement windows set high in the walls.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “The dead don’t talk to you.”
“Just try it.”
Troy sat down on the couch with us, and opened the box on the drink-stained, lacquered coffee table. He unfolded the game board. Printed on top was the alphabet—a gentle arc of letters A through Z, in a sort of spooky old Victorian black type. Below that were numbers, one through ten. A pen and ink illustration of a black and white sun, replete with a smiling face, was one in corner; a sleepy crescent moon in the other. At the bottom of the board was the word “goodbye.”
Troy scanned the directions on the inside of the box-top. “Says here we have to put our hands on the ‘planchette,’” Troy said.
We all three placed our hands on the heart-shaped plastic piece. In its center was a small, round clear window to view messages from beyond. The planchette, with our hands on it, was supposed to move its way around the board, spelling out messages from the beyond.
Troy took a deep breath. Maeve watched him intently and did the same.
“We are trying to contact the spirit world,” said Troy. “Can anyone hear us?”
The three of us sat still. We were so quiet, you could hear the pendulum inside the grandfather clock upstairs in the living room swinging away. Nixon barked.
Troy looked at me and nodded at the board, wanting me to ask the next question. When I didn’t say anything, he glared. I rolled my eyes.
“Is anyone there?” Maeve asked.
Our fingertips rested lightly on the planchette.
“We would like to talk,” said Maeve.
The thing started to move slightly. I looked up at Troy. He had his eyes closed. I knew he was moving it, the dork.
“Who’s there?” asked Troy. “Who are we talking to?”
The plastic heart moved slowly across the board, over the arc of black lettering.
“Stop screwing around, Troy. You’re moving this thing.”
The piece stopped its questionably phantasmal glide.
“You broke our concentration!” said Troy. “We were connected to someone!”
“Luke!” said Maeve, looking at me with disappointment. “Can’t you just play along? Why do you have to be so serious all the time?”
“All right, all right,” I said, taking a breath, lifting my fingertips off the planchette a few inches and then placing them back down. I closed my eyes.
We sat in silence for a few seconds. Focusing.
“If there is a spirit here with us,” said Troy, “please reveal yourself. You are amongst friends.”
A few seconds passed and nothing. Then, effortlessly, like a plastic puck on an air-hockey table, it started gliding across the alphabet. It stopped on the letter “S.” Then it moved again, drifting over to “Q.”
It was bull. Troy or Maeve was moving the thing. I didn’t believe it for one second. Still, a shiver came over me.
The planchette drifted across the board surface. It moved to “U,” then “I,” then “R,” then “E,” and finally to “S.” Then it stopped.
I looked at Troy. His eyes, even behind the thick prescription lenses, bulged.
“Is that you, Danny?” asked Troy.
And the plastic heart began moving again. Y-E-S, it spelled.
Maeve sat up straight. “Oh, Danny,” she whispered. “Are you really here? I miss you.” She looked at me. “Luke, too.”
Danny Squires used to live in our neighborhood. We went to school together, at Myrtle G. Schumacher Elementary. During the summers when our moms worked, we hung out everyday. We were the kids of divorced parents, and we took care of ourselves. We watched TV. We made peanut butter and cheese sandwiches. We blasted KISS records in the basement. We read books, lots of them, and talked about them. One day, Danny came over with the first book in the Hardy Boys’ detective series—The Tower Treasure, and we were hooked. We read a dozen or more books in the series thereafter. We hung out at the mall, went to the movies, and when that got boring, went to the forest preserve behind the mall and climbed trees like apes. Danny also took care of Maeve like she was his own sister. He played dolls with her when I wouldn’t. He laughed at her nonsensical knock-knock jokes.
Danny always laughed at that one, going along with it. He used to say that he and Maeve were real brother and sister, since they had the same hair—untamed heads of blonde.
One day, when we were walking along the railroad tracks that cut through town, he turned to me and said, “I love you, Luke.”
Danny Squires is the only guy who ever said that to me. It wasn’t weird or anything, just brotherly.
The first few months after he died, it didn’t seem to really bother me. I think I was in a state of shock or denial. Then, one night lying in bed, I woke up, crying.
Drenched in sweat, I cried. Cold shafts of moonlight spotlighted in through my bedroom window. My hair was soaked. My Minnesota Viking pajamas were drenched. And I couldn’t stop. Mom came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed.
“What’s wrong, Luke?” she asked. She wrapped her arms around me and I tucked my head under her chin and I wept more.
“Why did Danny have to die?”
“I don’t know, honey. I just don’t know.” She hugged me tighter.
We sat there a long time, her rocking me. Then I saw Maeve standing in the bedroom doorway, bathed in the white moonglow. She had on her favorite vanilla-colored flannel nightgown and she was holding her doll with the eyes that wouldn’t shut.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, in that high, pipsqueak voice of hers. “Luke, what’s wrong? Don’t cry.”
“He’s sad about Danny,” Mom said.
“It’s okay, Luke,” Maeve said. “It’s okay.”
I sniffled as Mom held me tighter.
“Really, Luke,” Maeve said again, looking at me very seriously. I’d never seen her like that. “It’s okay.”
Danny had been gone for over a year when we started playing with the Ouija board. We played it all summer long. Each time, we supposedly connected to him. My nightmares started then. The car crash. The impact of the cars hitting; the tremendous jolting of mother and son. I could see the intersection, looking down on Carolyn Squires, after she had emerged from the mangled automobile, standing there in the cascading snowfall. Sometimes, in the twisted wreckage of the car, I could just make out a clump of Danny’s blonde hair. I could smell the gasoline.
When I couldn’t sleep any longer, Mom said maybe I should go see someone, but I didn’t want to. I couldn’t tell some therapist—some stranger—what I was feeling. We really didn’t have the money for it anyway, so Mom dropped it.
Some nights I was afraid to go to bed. I was scared of falling asleep. The Ouija board wasn’t helping anything. I didn’t believe in it. But in the back of my mind, I thought that maybe, just maybe, we really were talking to Danny. So we sat down in the basement through the end of July and into August and asked him questions:
“Where are you?”
“Are you happy there?
“Would you come back if you could?”
“Are there others there with you?”
“Have you met anyone famous?
ELVIS IS HERE
I paused on this last one and looked up at Troy. He didn’t meet my eyes; instead, he stared down at the game. This last response was pure crock. Troy’s parents were obsessed with Elvis. When the King died, they drove to Graceland for the vigil. While they were there, they bought a bunch of Elvis plates with his face on it, an Elvis mirror, key-chains, T-shirts, coffee mugs, wristbands, pot holders, and loads of other crap. Their entire house was a shrine.
When the Ouija board spelled “Elvis is here,” I knew that we weren’t connected to Danny at all. It had been Troy all along.
“Screw you, Troy. You’ve been moving this thing yourself. We’re not talking to Danny. It’s you.”
“I promise,” said Troy, surprise on his face. “I haven’t moved this thing once. Not once!”
“Come on, Troy. Just leave. And take the Ouija board with you. I’ve had enough.”
“Whatever,” Troy said, standing up. “If you don’t believe me, fine. I’m telling you, I didn’t fake any of this.”
“Elvis, Troy?” I said, accusingly.
Maeve shrugged. “Elvis deserves to be in Heaven,” she said.
Troy walked up the basement stairs and left. We heard the front door slam behind him. He left the Ouija board. It sat there on the coffee table. Maeve and I sat in silence, staring at it. Then, the weirdest thing happened. The overhead florescent lights blinked on. All by themselves.
A week passed and we didn’t touch the game. One afternoon, after the weather cooled off and there was an actual breeze blowing, Maeve and I walked home from the library. The sun shone through the rustling leaves in the trees along the streets, creating a sort of brilliant champagne-colored light. Everywhere, there was the constant buzz of cicadas. Before we went inside, Maeve filled Nixon’s water dish. When we went down to the basement. The TV was on.
“That’s weird,” I said. “I’m sure I turned the TV off.”
Then I noticed a book lying on the floor. A Hardy Boys book had fallen off a shelf. I picked it up and looked at it. The Tower Treasure.
“See?” said Maeve. “Danny is here. The TV was turned on. A book flew off a shelf. That’s the sort of thing ghosts do.”
It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, when something you really want to be real is real, or if you just want it so badly to be real that you convince yourself of it.
“It’s nothing,” I said, finally. “Just a weird coincidence.”
“Come on,” said Maeve, moving over to the Ouija board. “Let’s see.”
I stood there for a moment. I was tired of it. Mostly of the nightmares. But, always in the back of my mind, what if? What if that darned board game was a conduit to Danny? So I went and sat next to Maeve and placed my hands next to hers on the plastic planchette.
“Danny,” Maeve said. “Are you here with us?”
The planchette began moving. Drifting, drifting, with a little more momentum than usual. My eyes met Maeve’s. The device moved over the letters, finally spelling: I AM WITH YOU.
Maeve smiled at me. A sweet, innocent smile.
“Did you do that? Did you move it to say that?” I asked, urgently.
Maeve looked at me for a moment before answering, firmly, “No.”
Danny never really knew his dad. He was an only child and his mom worshipped him. He was her everything. Carolyn Squires had a bleached bouffant hairdo and she listened to a lot of sad country music about heartbreak and death and stuff. Most of the time I was over at Danny’s house, she was seated on the floral sofa reading the Bible. She was a secretary at a local factory. One night in the dead of winter, Mrs. Squires was driving her powder blue Mercury Marquis—the same exact color as the eye shadow she always wore—from the Ridgedale Mall. Danny sat in the passenger seat. Mrs. Squires had just bought Danny some soft corduroys and oxford shirts for school. They were talking about going away on summer vacation together, to California. Mrs. Squires had both of her hands on the wheel, her red nails clenching the cold molded plastic. It had snowed most of the day. One of the headlights on the car was out. Mrs. Squires said she was going to fix it with her next paycheck. Patches of black ice were everywhere.
The car moved through an intersection and then, there was this great explosion of metal and glass, like a bomb going off. The other car had missed the red light and hit the passenger side of the Squires’ car. The impact was tremendous. Inside, particles of burnt tobacco floated slowly in the air—thrown from the ashtray. Glass showered to the floor, papers from the glove box floated. Mrs. Squires clenched the wheel tightly with her hands and gritted her teeth. After the violent collision, everything became still. She looked over at her son. That side of the car had been destroyed completely. Imploded.
Shaking, muttering, “no….no…no…” she unbuckled herself and stepped from the vehicle out into the cold night and barren intersection. The other car was accordioned. The lone driver slumped over the steering wheel. Steam hissed from what was left of the car’s radiator. Carolyn Squires stood there, underneath the bright corner streets lamps as little wispy diamonds of snow flittered down. Her son was dead.
That night, after Mom got home from work, I asked her to drive me to the Ridgedale Mall. She and Maeve went shopping and I took the escalator up to the second level to the Game Kingdom—a small emporium of board games, model kits, toy soldiers, and trading cards. The owner, a heavy-set man wearing a baseball cap to cover a balding hairline, was seated behind a glass counter.
“What’s up, Boss?” he asked, turning the volume down on a small portable television he was watching. There was a sit-com on, and I could still hear the occasional wave of canned studio laughter.
“Do you sell Ouija Boards?”
“Sure do. There over on that shelf.” He pointed to the corner of the shop.
“I actually have one already, I was hoping you might be able to answer some questions for me.”
“Sure, I’ll do the best I can. What’s up?”
“Is a Ouija board real?” I asked. “I mean, does it really help communicate to the spirit world?”
“Depends what your definition of ‘real’ is. Are the Vikings going to be real this year? I suppose. If you believe. If you want to believe.”
“What can you tell me about the rules of playing the game?”
The owner lifted the brim of his cap and scratched his forehead. “Well, there are a couple of rules and points you need to follow. Lots of people take Ouija Boards very seriously. They say that if you don’t do things right, you could set loose a spirit and keep it trapped here on our plain of existence. Spirits don’t want to be here. Seriously, man. It sucks. You think a ghost wants to contend with our earthly problems? And if they are stuck here, they can’t rest in peace. Worse yet, some people maintain that if you really screw things up with a Ouija board, you can inadvertently set demons free. Believe me, you don’t want that. There was one kid in Minnetonka I heard about who released Asmodeus by accident.”
“It was a bad scene. Asmodeus evidently got into the plumbing system of the house because he was attracted to the stench. It ended up costing the parents like ten grand to replace the septic tank. Brutal.”
“Did they get rid of the demon?”
“Well how do you screw things up with a Ouija Board?”
“You got to follow the rules. At the bottom of the game board, there’s the word ‘goodbye.’ When you’re done communicating with a spirit, you need to end the session by bidding it farewell. The spirit will move the floating plastic thing down and spell out ‘goodbye.’ This makes sure that any ghost, demon, or spirit returns to their own plain of existence.”
“What happens if you end a game and forget to do this?”
“I’m not sure. You might have a spirit with you for the rest of your life. I suppose you can always to try to go back, play again, and this time say goodbye for good. At some point you just need to let the spirit go home.”
“Is there anything else important when playing a Ouija Board?”
“Well, they say you have to play with more than one person. But I think that’s a load of shit. Think about it, man. If a ghost is in your house, it’s going to do whatever the hell it wants. It doesn’t need two people with their hands on a plastic part made by Hasbro. A ghost could just move that thing. I mean, come on! The real reason they want you to play with more than one person is so one person can cheat and move that piece across the board and the other person will just wonder if it moved for real. That’s why.”
I wondered again if Troy or Maeve had been moving the thing all along.
“And sometimes,” the owner continued, “people don’t even know they’re moving it themselves. It’s a subconscious deal.”
“You can move the game piece and not even know you are doing it?”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Well, thanks for all your help.”
I turned to leave. The shop owner turned the volume up on his television and I heard the eruption of studio audience laughter. I went out into the mall, leaned over the second tier railing and spotted my Mom and Maeve, sitting down in the lower level food court. You couldn’t miss Maeve —she loved to wear this cute red beret. They were having ice cream. I took the escalator downstairs and met up with them.
We drove home. After they went to bed, I went down to the basement. I watched Johnny Carson for awhile—something Danny and I used to do when he spent the night. When everything was quiet upstairs, I turned the TV off, dimmed the lights and lit two white dinner candles Mom kept in a drawer. I took a seat on the couch. The Ouija board was spread out before me. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and placed my hands on the planchette. I sat silently for a minute. It was so quiet, I could hear the pulse in my head.
“Danny, if you are here, let me know. Give me a sign.”
I waited. The room glowed from the candlelight. Next door, out in the night, I heard Nixon bark.
“I miss you, Danny,” I said. “If you’re here with me please give me a sign.”
I waited, my fingers placed gently on the planchette. It didn’t move. Nixon barked again.
“I can’t stop the nightmares, Danny. The bad dreams of your accident. They won’t go away.”
My eyes welled with warm, salty tears.
“Danny, I just want to know. I want to know if—“
The planchette began to move, just skimming above the game board. I was a little startled. I even took my fingers off of it for second and I swear to you, even looking back on it now, it moved all on its own. I rested my fingertips back on the plastic pointer. It moved quickly across the board, with urgency. And I watched as it spelled it out. Spelled right before my eyes.
And with my fingers resting gently on the planchette, I did what I was supposed to do along, what any responsible Ouija player does, I said goodbye to Danny Squires. When I was through, I closed the board game, put it away in the box, and blew the candles out. I ascended the stairs in darkness, went to my bedroom, climbed into bed, and for the first time in a long time, fell into a deep and restful sleep.