The day Laney discovered the ouija board in the attic was the first and last time she would ever play with it.
It wasn’t even a board at all, precisely, merely a grid of letters chalked beneath a flap of loose carpet. A floating ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ sprung in an arch over the configuration, each encapsuled in a jaunty sun and moon, respectively.
It was impossible to tell how long it had been there, although to Laney’s mind it might well have been protected, untouched, since her family had purchased the house two years sgo. The attic was seldom used, too small to be repurposed as another room, too drafty and damp, in turns, to store anything of importance.
Yet the ouija board had endured, a secret which Laney had only discovered by accident, having tripped over a dog-eared quarter of the carpet.
She was nine years old, and summer was coming to its clammy and dejected end: there was no question as to whether she would play with such a curiousity, nor did she possess the trembling dread of common sense to suggest that she should not.
Laney was the sort of child that made pets of spiders, avoided every crack in even the most fractured paving stone, and left offerings to unglimpsed fairy folk under a tree root in the back yard. She was an unsung witch in the way only small children can be, weilding—in the mind, at least—a rough and hodgepodge magic.
So it was on an afternoon humid with rain and throttled thunder that Laney stole a glass up to the attic and sat, cross-legged, before the ouija board, setting the tumbler, head-down, at its heart.
The floor was uncomfortable beneath her, the bare tungsten light bulb droning overhead casting a thin, ammonia light. Laney wished that there was a curtain at the small, high window at the back of the room to procure an even thicker darkness; without it the game felt only half-real, a lacklustre theatre only the doldrums of August allowed.
“Okay,” said Laney, setting her dominant hand loosely atop the glass. “Is anybody there?”
She looked down at her fingers, limp and still, and was instantly bored. It was as she’d expected: there was likely nothing and no one present in her home but herself and, of course, her parents.
The house had never carried a particularly sinister air, having been painted in insipid poster colours by its previous owner, like the innards of a 1930s circus tent. This was surely quite the deterrent for any spirit of taste, and yet Laney had hoped otherwise, at the very least for someone to talk to.
Friendship was a mere concept to Laney, like some rare celestial collision that had been long awaited, and yet had never come. She had always seemed off-putting to other children, frightening, even, in the obscurity of her idea of play. With the move it had mattered less, for she was now homeschooled, and that was better.
Puffing a hot breath through her front teeth Laney considered her over-thumbed bookshelf, the toys she’d outgrown a year ago. The ouija board was the last thing of even the vaguest interest to entertain herself with, and it had still made itself redundant.
Signing, Laney nudged the upturned glass along the floor, pretending idly that she did not know it was her own will that moved it. Sometimes, when she imagined something with enough strength, she would start to believe in it until she wasn’t sure she’d conjured the thought herself to begin with.
“‘HELLO,'” read Laney; having twitched her hand to the greeting that hovered above the board. “Hello, spirit. Who are you?”
Again she inched her fingers across the floor in a pantomime of earnest.
“‘MOMMY,'” Laney read, aloud. “Whose mommy? The people who lived here before?”
She paused, wondering which way to stir the narrative. Laney knew nothing of the history of the house, which she imagined meant there was nothing about it particularly of note.
She slid the glass a third time. The attic was silent but for the insistence of the rain and the slow grinding out of each letter on the wood.
“My mom’s still alive,” said Laney, feigning an indignant air. “She’s downstairs, sleeping. She does that a lot. All day, sometimes. She gets sad, stressed. So it makes her tired, I guess.”
Although she knew that it was only herself speaking Laney felt a little shiver pass through her thin t-shirt.
“Wait here,” she muttered, and skimmed down the attic ladder with scarcely a foot on its rungs.
Laney stood at the top of the stairs, listening for her mother’s distinct, rattling snore. To her relief it came drifting up from the living room below, comforting in the certainty of its existence.
Returning to the attic, Laney cast a derisive look at the chalked ouija board, her glass still encircling the letter ‘P’.
“You’re a liar,” she announced. “And you’re nobody, anyway.”
She kicked the glass over with the toe of one sneaker, watching it roll across ‘GOODBYE’ and away into one corner. Suddenly she was tired of the game, and wondered why anyone ever played it to begin with, or so she told herself.
The attic had begun to feel cool, unwelcoming. Laney could smell the moulder of it on herself, like a fear sweat; nudging the flap of carpet back down over the ouija board she descended the geriatric ladder and shut herself into her bedroom with a book for the rest of the afternoon.
Night had broken across the house like a giant’s backhand by the time commotion began to stir in the rooms below. There was shouting from Laney’s father, first at her mother, Laney thought, her blanched faced pressed to the door to listen, then over the telephone. Whoever was on the other end of the line didn’t seem to be listening properly, for there was a lot of swearing and banging about from a man who ordinarily made very little noise at all.
It was only when the crimson shriek of an ambulance approached the driveway that Laney crept along the landing on socked feet, peering through the bannisters towards the living room, whose door was aloofly shoot. She knelt there, watching like an infant set upon catching Father Christmas as medics pushed through the house, rainwater pooling darkly in their footprints.
Her father never told her precisely what had become of her mother that evening, seeming incapable of it, rendered mute by the disfigurement of grief. It was in whispers and eavesdropped asides that Laney learned there had been an overdose of some unnamed medicine, vomit that had smothered in a strangling haze of sleep.
With this came a second learning: that guilt had an unshirkable weight, tearing Laney beneath it like a mountain’s slip of loosened stone.
She endured the funeral as she might a trial, staring through each extension of comfort from grieving relatives without accepting an ounce of it. Laney had made the ouija board in the attic outline her mother’s death; she, therefore, had caused it to be.
There was no question of coincidence, preposterous in the immediacy of its happening. She thought herself a murderer— knew it, as well as she could know such things.
For years she avoided the attic, although it seemed to thrust down upon her, always, with the taut pressure of an unwrung cloud. Laney was afraid of the room, and of herself; she often had dreams that she’d crawled up the ladder in the night, beckoning the deaths of all in her family through glass and fading chalk.
When a decade had passed, Laney—who, in the face of logic, was still bound to the theory that her mother’s death was of supernatural causes—developed an obsession with whom precisely had made the board in the first place. Perhaps this individual had imbued it with a portentous magic, even a will of its own, sourcing death from the proximity of its user.
Such theories, however, were theories alone; no reading Laney had ever pursued on the topic seemed to scope further than the realms of embellished fiction, nor had any person claiming to have experienced such phenomena been capable of providing firm evidence.
That there seemed no one with whom Laney could relate and dissect her experiences only isolated her further from the truth. Her father remained unreachable, a withered mummer; Laney could scarcely go to him with the shame of her asomotous crime, fearing—perhaps foolishly—his judgement.
Thus it was only through tireless online sleuthing that Laney culminated her research into the house, happening upon its previous owners.The discovery was an anticlimax: they had been an elderly couple, likely unable to use the attic in the sixteen years they’d owned the property. Besides, it was impossible for any chalk marking to endure for nearly two decades in any conditions, let alone beneath a rotting carpet.
Who, therefore, had drawn the board? Certainly neither of Laney’s parents had done it, both atheist to fault, particularly her mother, who would not keep even a bible in the house. An intruder, then? The stuff of bland films, another explanation to dispense with.
Mythic, the ouija board had gained, through time, an enigmatic pull to it. Once, Laney would rather have gutted the house with fire than set eyes on the chalk again; now the thought of returning to it seemed tacked to her heel like a shadow, a notion she could not shake free.
At nineteen Laney at last found it in her to ascend the maligned ladder into the attic. The door had been in disuse for so long that there stood a layer of dust upon it, streaming like cobwebs in the air. She climbed through it in halting steps, poised to scuttle back down at the merest sense of sinister activity.
It was difficult to know what to expect—a sheet-garbed spirit? Some disheveled interloper?—and yet image upon image came to her, summoned across the backdrop of the darkness.
Fumbling at the wall, Laney knocked on the light switch and thrust herself up the last step into the room beyond. How much smaller it appeared now than it had then; the ceiling was so low that Laney was forced to hunch her shoulders in order to stand upright.
It as spare as it had been when she was nine: there was a handful of beaten-up cardboard boxes bandied about, containing little more than a few broken old toys and knots of ill-fitting clothes, reeking of age. The carpet—off-brown, a wretched choice—was the most unsettling aspect of the room, if only in the notion of what lay beneath.
Half-choked on memories Laney stood upon it, eyeing, through a film of tears, the upturned flap of carpet she remembered from that world-ending afternoon.There were surely no answers under there, no balm for the weeping gash of the loss from which she’d never arisen.
Perhaps the carpet was the final reveal of what any sane person would tell her: that she had done nothing wrong, that she carried with her only a child’s simple blame. Still Laney crouched and pulled back the rug, tugging with such a savagery that far more peeled across the boards than she’d initially intended.
That done, she stood back and gazed at the wood, long-preserved beneath a cask of boxes. Of the ouija board there was little, now, scarcely the breath of colour. Yet above and around it there were other shapes that Laney could just barely make out: there were the soft outlines of flowers, stick people—or were they trees?—in between.
A large, wobbly lined heart swallowed half a floorboard, and within it were letters, a few of which Laney could identify.
She had forgotten. Now she understood, in the grimy misery of the room, why she had cleaved to so long to her remorse. Laney had drawn the ouija board herself, somewhere in that formless summer, with a chalk set a relative had bought her for her birthday; it had remained in the attic, abandoned, until by chance she’d discovered it again.
The recollection was soft, loose as shale, and yet there it was, moulded like opaline mist to the drawings and their latent power. She hadn’t meant it, what she’d done in creating the board, nor by using it. She hadn’t known. But her father, in his shellish quiet: he had.
And Laney’s mother, with her malaise, she had suspected, and attempted to stave off the dangling threat that was her daughter. The move, when Laney was seven, the homeschooling, an attempt to isolate and prevent—
A dozen small facets of a grim and peculiar life took shape like ink blots in a psychiatrist’s notepad, and Laney stood up, teetering rather, wondering if she might be sick. Scuffing the carpet back over the floorboards she leant against the nearest wall, closing her eyes.
The dark behind her closed lids spun in a carnival cyclone, round and round and round again. Lacey didn’t know what to do, would never know, and could not speak of it.
She only knew what she was, and had always been. That, in her ignorance, she had made an unforgivable mistake.
The attic, stale around her, was a tomb now in its flavour of death.