As I Descended
in thunder (#ulink_cd0623e1-a891-5cd0-bcaa-6fcd10030081)
THE CHARM’S WOUND UP (#ulink_e4d1d41a-0298-51c2-bf42-e0716233bbbc)
The Ouija board was Lily’s idea.
Maria warned her not to go through with it, but Lily didn’t listen. She went onto eBay while Maria was at soccer practice and bought the prettiest board she could find. A “genuine antique,” she called it.
Only when she showed it to Maria and Brandon that night she pronounced it “gen-you-wine,” showing off the Southern drawl everyone teased her for. Soon after that they opened the bottle of cheap white wine left over from Delilah’s eighteenth birthday party, and every five minutes either Brandon or Maria would utter the words “gen-you-wine an-TEEK!” and collapse into giggles.
Lily pretended to take offense the first few times, but by her last Styrofoam cup of Chardonnay Lily was adding an extra I to every word she said. “Sit” became “See-it.” “Drink” was “dreeenk.” When she started calling Maria “Mariah,” like Mariah Carey, Brandon confiscated her cup.
Maria had been worried about Lily all day. She wasn’t normally this loud, or this giggly. And Lily never drank—she didn’t even like to take her painkillers. Normally she sat at the edge of the party sipping seltzer and watching their friends with her hawk eyes to make sure no one spilled anything on their plush dorm-room carpet.
Part of Maria wanted to declare the evening over, escort Lily back to their room, put her in bed, and keep an eye on her for the rest of the night to make sure she didn’t do anything else out of the ordinary.
But Maria couldn’t focus on Lily right now. Not with that Ouija board sitting next to her.
This board was the real deal. Maria could feel it. It wasn’t any of that plastic Milton Bradley crap. This board meant business.
It was after lights-out in the dorm, so the three of them kept their laughter to whispers. Everyone was supposed to be in their rooms tucked into bed by ten p.m. if they didn’t want to get written up by one of the dorm monitors who prowled the halls.
None of the staff ever checked the old dining hall, though. Most of the students never ventured here after dark. There were rumors about the room. Scary stories the younger kids whispered about at sleepovers.
Maria had seen enough to know those kinds of stories were usually bullshit. The truth was a lot scarier than anything little kids could imagine.
But Lily had thought the old dining hall was the perfect place for their first séance, and Maria had given up arguing about it. Lily was smart—smarter than Maria; they’d both known that much from the beginning—but she didn’t know the first thing about what that Ouija board could do. She’d begged, though, and begged some more, and she’d smiled sweetly and said pretty things, and finally, Maria had given in.
Maria probably should’ve put up a fight. It was just that she hated fighting with Lily more than almost anything. It was always better when she knew she could glance over at Lily and be certain her girlfriend would smile that warm, secret smile she saved just for Maria.
Besides, it might not work. It had been years since Maria had last tried to talk to the spirits. Maybe they’d forgotten her.
By the time they’d poured out the last of the wine, Lily and Brandon were giggling so much Maria wondered if they even remembered the board still sitting in its cardboard box. Maria could never forget something like that. Her eyes were on Brandon—he was telling them about the giant beetle he’d found in the flowers Mateo had given him for their two-week anniversary, and his epic screams that had brought the dorm monitors running, convinced he was having an epileptic fit—but through it all, the board kept humming to her. The longer it went on, the more Maria ached to know if the spirits really did remember.
So when Brandon wrapped up his story and Lily pulled the candles out of her bag and said, “Shall we begin?” Maria didn’t hesitate. She was ready.
Brandon shrugged and took another swallow from his cup. Maria lit the candles while Lily set up her phone’s audio recorder.
Maria hadn’t wanted to do this, but there was no going back now. Not while Lily was giving her that smile.
Not while the board was still humming to her.
Brandon covered his yawn as Maria lined up the candles, following instructions Lily had found on some website. Brandon was designated the note taker and given a pad and pencil. His job was to copy down whatever the planchette spelled out.
Brandon had played with Ouija boards enough as a kid to know it wasn’t going to spell out anything more than a few fart jokes, so he didn’t mind this job. Plus, as an added bonus, this way he got to keep drinking. At their usual parties, when all the popular seniors got together to drink and flirt in someone’s room after lights-out, Brandon never got in more than a few swallows. The other guys were always grabbing his drink out of his hand and then pounding Brandon on the shoulder too hard, howling laughter as they thanked him and guzzled his beer.
Lily pulled the board out of its packaging. It was bigger than Brandon had expected. At least two feet wide. You could tell it was old from the cracks in the paint and the worn-smooth edges of the wood. But it was still nice-looking, with artsy paintings in the corners for the sun and moon and fancy calligraphy on all the letters and numbers. The words “YES” and “NO” were carved into the corners in a fancy font. At the top was an elaborate drawing of a single eye, wide-open, with a deep black pupil, and at the bottom, the words “GOOD BYE” was drawn next to a closed eye.
Brandon didn’t care one way or the other about Ouija boards, but those eyes were still creepy. No matter which way he leaned in his seat, it felt like that one at the top was watching him.
Lily slid the board onto the table and set the wooden planchette gently on top. It was flat and heart-shaped with another deep black eye carved into the wood, right below the hole that was cut to show which letter the planchette had chosen. Brandon took another sip of his drink and avoided its gaze.
Lily took out the poem she’d printed from the website and began to read. Her giggliness from before was long gone, and she was using a deep, serious voice, like something she must’ve seen in a horror movie. Before she’d finished the first line, Brandon had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing out loud.
“‘’Tis time, ’tis time.
Round about the talking board,
Candles burn, the charm’s own chord.
Open, locks, whoever knocks.
We, the living, offer you vox.’”
Brandon stifled his laughter while the girls reached into the center of the table. Each of them laid two fingers on the planchette. Since he was the only one not absorbed in the utter seriousness of the thing, Brandon was the only one to notice the dorm’s two cats, Rhett and Scarlett, nosing their way into the room from the staff kitchen.
Brandon could’ve sworn he’d locked that door when he and the girls first came in. The main door that opened into the hallway, too.
Oh, well. He must’ve remembered wrong. He’d had kind of a lot of wine.
Brandon seemed to be the only one who’d noticed it was getting colder, too. Three candles grouped in front of him flickered, their flames turning blue, as though they felt the chill. Brandon shrugged on the Acheron Academy soccer team sweatshirt Mateo had left in his room the night before.
Neither of the girls looked up at the movement. They both had their eyes fixed on the board. Maria wasn’t even blinking.
Several minutes passed without anything happening. Brandon yawned again. He should really be studying for the physics quiz tomorrow, but it had been so long since Maria had wanted to hang out with him alone. Well, alone plus Lily.
Brandon had always liked Lily. Or tried to, anyway, for Maria’s sake, once he found out the two of them had taken the whole roommate thing to the next level. Lily was pretty. She was smart, too, and she was nice enough, if you were talking to her about things like homework or teachers or what she was going to major in, which were the only kinds of things Brandon ever talked to her about.
But there was something strange about Lily. Something he’d never been able to put his finger on. Something that made him want to avoid getting stuck alone in a room with her.
Lily put up with him, but only for Maria’s sake. So did most everyone in that crowd. Being best friends with Maria had lots of benefits. She was the second-most-popular girl in school. After Delilah, obviously.
Though to Brandon’s surprise, in the past couple of weeks since he’d started hooking up with Mateo, things had been looking up for him on the popularity front. He’d been excited to finally have a boyfriend, of course—it still made him grin to think about it—but he hadn’t realized it would make the others treat him differently, too. Brandon had always lived on the periphery of the popular crowd, but Mateo had set up a permanent residence right in the middle of it years ago.
But then, that was Acheron’s social universe. When you were fat and gay and on financial aid and you spent your free nights alone in your room watching old Battlestar Galactica videos, most of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Old South plantation owners’ great-great-great-great-great-grandkids didn’t have much reason to bother with you. Unless you were hooking up with one of their own.
Of course, Brandon was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Old South plantation owner’s great-great-great-great-great-grandkid, too. He’d just had the misfortune of being born several generations after the family money had withered away.
Meanwhile, Maria and Mateo both had the Spanish names, dark eyes, and brown skin that would’ve kept them off those Old South plantations—unless they’d come with a price tag.
The irony had never been lost on Brandon. But sometimes he actually found it preferable to think the reason he didn’t fit in at Acheron was that he was poor, or that he was gay, or that he was fat. It was better than thinking the problem was the fact that he was . . . him.
Anyway, he liked hanging out with his friends. Some of the straight guys he’d gotten to know through his work-study job in the athletics office were cool to him, and as long as he had Maria, he could deal with the rest.
Maria was the best friend he’d ever had. The only one who’d really mattered. He could never have lasted at this place if it hadn’t been for Maria, giggling with him at room parties and muttering jokes into his ear during pep rallies and sneaking into his room after lights-out to whisper under the covers while his roommate snored in the next bed.
Tonight had been a fun night. Up until the girls had gotten all serious about talking to ghosts or whatever.