Phil sat anxiously in the study room, waiting for the others. First he drummed his fingers, and then he tapped his nose. All he needed was a yo-yo and he would have been complete. Finally, he heard a noise in the corridor and then the quick snap of the door handle. He turned round and saw Steve bundle in, followed by Jim and Graham. He stood up, feeling oddly formal, and the others nodded to him. It was time to begin.
They laid it all out on the table in-front of them. The board covered most of it and the few extra pieces just about filled it out. The four of them sat round it, all of them peering down on it, like it was some wondrous, perfect skin-mag. Phil cleared his throat, unhappy with the way his friends worked in silence, though in reality it was the best way to work. He looked to Steve.
“And you’ve done this before, right?” He said to his best friend. Steve rolled his eyes.
“Like, three times. Every time was a success, too. Come on, P, you’ve asked me that question four times already.” Even though his words were peevish, the tone was relaxed as always. It made Phil smile.
“I just don’t want anyone to get in trouble, that’s all.” He said, shrugging. He looked up from the Ouija board to his friend. Steve was smiling.
“How much trouble can we get into, man? We’re dead already!” He said and finally, the four friends laughed.
“That’s not the point and you know it,” Jim said, fiddling with the markers. “I don’t know about you, but I like it here. Dead people have way better manners than the people downstairs.”
“How do you know they’re not upstairs?” Graham said quietly and the others laugher, but only briefly. Graham had a way of saying the truth in a way that could scare people without realising it.
“That’s what I mean,” Phil said. And it was true. After all was said and done, being dead was not actually as bad as he’d feared. Sure there were drawbacks, but all in all, the people were nice and the place had a really nice atmosphere. It was like going on a package holiday and finding out, to your great relief, that the other people are actually cool.
“Relax, big guy, no-one’s going to catch us, okay?” Steve said and rolled his eyes at Phil, smiling. REALLY rolled his eyes, too. Due to the nature of Steve’s death, he could do things like that. That was one of the drawbacks, he supposed. You come into the place with all infirmities intact; it was unsettling at first-for ‘unsettling’ read ‘terrifying’- but it was just something else to adjust too. After a while, it just became a warped type of ice-breaker, really.
They also saw to it that in some cases, such as starvation, that people were fed up and allowed to reach a certain place where they could cope with themselves. Phil remembered being with his friend Georgie as she stood in the mirror after a while, recovered, to a point, and seeing tears in her eyes. They weren’t sad tears, either; she finally felt comfortable looking at herself in the mirror in a place where no-one would judge her with harsh words or looks. If you lived in a world where everyone was scarred, no-one could judge, Phil had often thought.
“Okay, so shall we do this?” Steve said. He was smiling and Phil found himself smiling right along. Steve was infectious like that; he was the unofficial leader of the gang, and on a wider scale, a kind of meet and greet mascot for the whole place. He always dismissed his popularity-behind the confidence he was kind of a bashful, goofy guy-but it was a gift. Hell, if you could make a dead man laugh, you had to have some kind of talent, Phil had told him, more than once.
The four of them linked hands and began the ritual. For the past week, Steve and Jim had argued the semantics of trying to contact the living from where they were and the complications of creating a reverse Ouija board. Steve had argued that all it required was a literal reverse, whereas Jim had tried to argue the finer points. As is the case with most arguments when two forces won’t give ground, the third party wins. Graham, in his quiet unassuming way, piped up with three or four sentences, merging the two ideas into one, whole concept, and the issue was settled. ‘Always look out for the quiet ones’ is an adage that holds true in this place, Phil decided. Especially since a lot of them were sent to the place by ‘quiet ones’ who actually turned out to be psychopaths.
The lights were lowered and the game began. Steve read out the ritual and the four of them dutifully closed their eyes. There were the obligatory few minutes when nothing much seemed to happen, but Steve had already factored in for that, saying that they had to allow five minutes for the connection to be made. But time is a funny thing now, in the place; it’s not set in any form and Phil sometimes had that unsettling feeling that years could have passed in the time it took him to walk a corridor. It wasn’t a mean thing, or a trick, the way it was here, it was just different. Graham had once likened it to trying to learn a new language; it wasn’t meant to make you feel stupid, but sometimes you still felt like an ass trying to understand it.
Feelings: They still held in this place. Dying did not mean the end of things in a lot of ways. You could still laugh, you could still feel lonely. But a lot of the other things, the things that made people like Jim and Georgie feel good about being here, were trimmed away; feelings like pettiness or simple cruelty. People could still be hurt, or to be more exact, be hurting over something, but none of it was intended. You could miss the love of someone, but no-one would dump you out of spite, was how it was set up-Graham again.
Feelings were what led them to the séance. Phil felt the hurt of missing someone. Not in the grand traditions of movies, or weepy books; there were no lost lovers waiting on the other side. No, his was simpler; he felt bad for his sister. The two of them, having cruel parents, found closeness quick. They grew up, they argued, they teased, they were family. A family built out of two halves. It was his sister who came up with their joint nickname-‘coin.’ They were heads and tails, simple as that.
So when Phil had found himself in the new place, it was his sister he missed. There were others worse off than him, worse off by a country mile and then some, he knew that. In life, Phil had been a quiet young man, with a few close friends and a love of photography, books; hobbies that lonely people latch onto. Since he had been here he had made a best friend in Steve and become a part of a gang; ‘the ghouls’, Steve had called them. There was even a part of him that was falling a little in love with Georgie, and felt she may be doing the same; he had held the tear that rolled onto her cheek that time when she stood in-front of the mirror; he had smiled and she had blushed and there was a low burst of understanding in what was left of Phil’s heart in that moment.
But then there was Amy.
His sister suffered without him by her side. He knew that; he had flashes from time to time. Moments when she slipped down the walls of her apartment and cried, great shuddering tears of pain. He felt it every time and it rocked him to his heels. It was the cruel twist; Amy had always been the strong one, the confident one, but without the small support of him, everything in her was beginning to unravel. Phil had made his decision after feeling the pain in her shift from grief to another, muddier, murky thing; a pain that might not stop and only lead to a very bad thing. That was when he decided to take action; there was no point being dead and happy when the living you loved was suffering worse in your place.
There was a snap of movement in the board. The four of them looked up and watched as the arrow darted along the board. There was a strange grip to the air around them, almost crackling. Phil thought the atmosphere had a frequency to it now and between where they were and where they were trying to reach was fusing together somehow. It was working.
Steve began to speak, not in the fake-ominous way college kids do when they act it out, but in an earnest way, as if he was in the midst of a test. Phil looked down to the questions that Phil had prepared and began to read them out. One of the factors they had settled on for this to work was no direct contact between Phil and Amy, so no chain was established; instead it was a kind of relay between a third party, which, they hoped, would not cause too much disruption.
The other problem was how the message was going to manifest itself and when. Phil had one terrible recurring nightmare since they had begun this scheme that Amy was old, too old and her life had simply drained away in the same, constant jag of pain she was in now. The other concern, amongst the hundred others, like, oh, you know, disrupting the balance between the living and the dead, destroying a thousand concepts on earth and possibly triggering a world war, was if she would actually receive the message, should it get through, in any understandable way; ‘relax’ spelt out in her cereal was not really going to do the trick, in any way shape or form. Phil drew breath; sometimes being dead was so damn stressful.
As quickly as it was established, it was over. The board ceased to shake, the sparks in the air ebbed away and what had been charged now returned to a sort of peace. The four of them looked at each other and then broke into a collective smile; the smile turned to giggles, Graham worst of all, which, of course, only made it worse, and then the lot of them fell into gales of laughter. They fell to the floor, clutching their sides, slapping each other’s backs, rocking from side to side. That was how the Man, the Master of the House, found them, when he opened the door, his long cloak pouring over floor, his face locked in fury. And like that, the laughter stopped.
Phil stood in the Man’s office, finding out that, yes, the dead can still be scared, and oh yeah, babe, their hands can still shake. The ‘incident’ as it was now being referred to, was being played out in the pool, with the both of them watching. The pool was a kind of liquid CCTV that was used to monitor things in the place. Things ran without electricity and none went without, although nothing was wasted. One of them, Graham, of course, thought out loud, that it said something when the dead were more energy conscious than the living.
“Well?” The Man said. The sound of his voice meant he didn’t have to speak often and what was said was always heard. Phil looked up from the pool and looked him in the eye. And, as best he could, he explained himself, carefully and clearly absolving the others from any blame.
Phil didn’t know if it was that, looking out for his friends, or his honesty, or just his good intentions, that led to what happened next; all he knew was that it was no accident; the Man did not make those. But it played out thus; the Man left the room on an errand, to discuss ‘the incident’ and left Phil alone in the office. The pool, which always dissolved into nothingness after its display, stayed in the air. Phil could not help but peer back into it, feeling somewhere inside himself, that it was something he was meant to do.
The pool rippled and then cleared, and a clear image of Amy appeared in its waters; Amy unchanged, as he remembered her. True, there was tiredness under her eyes, a dark circle that was so out of place it seemed like poorly smudged stage make-up, but everything else was how it was meant to be. She was in his room and she had found the package of photos, just developed before he left her; they were in an envelope and in the envelope was a note, just a quick note that he had dashed off to her before he left the room. He remembered what he had written in that note and thought suddenly how those words meant so much more now, than then. Phil watched her as she read from the piece of paper, and how she carefully folded the note into the chest pocket of her shirt. It was someplace close to her heart; it was enough.
Phil left the Man’s office with a list of chores that left him grateful that he no longer had any concept of time. As he walked the corridor he looked into each room; each of them occupied one of his friends; variously scrubbing, wiping or cleaning something. Each of them looked up, each of them winked. He reached his own designated room. He opened the door and found Georgie at the far end, clutching a mop and bucket.
“Guess we’re on detail together, huh?” She said, smiling.
“I guess so,” he said, walking over to her and returning the smile.
Chris has been published numerous times, including at The Absent Willow. He can be reached at [email protected]