As I Descended
“What the hell was that?” Brandon said.
“Probably a sophomore playing some dumb game,” Lily said.
“It didn’t sound like any sophomore,” Brandon said. “It sounded like somebody knocking at the gates of hell.”
The planchette quivered.
Lily and Brandon were both sitting forward. Brandon had his pad ready, a big M scrawled in the middle of it. The planchette moved faster than it had before, coming to a stop over the A.
“M, A,” Brandon read. “Bet it’s the ghost of Marie Antoinette. Ask her if she can get me the answers for the history test next week.”
No one laughed.
Brandon kept talking anyway, his voice pitched higher than usual. “By the way, does anyone else smell something baking?”
The planchette was still moving.
The next three letters were R, I, A. Then the planchette stopped.
“That’s not funny, Ree,” Lily said. “I thought we said we were going to take this seriously.”
Maria took her hand off the planchette. She was sweating despite the chill.
“I didn’t do that,” Maria said.
Lily sat back in her chair, her wide-set blue eyes narrowed, her forehead creased. “Then is this something that happens sometimes? Is your ghost coming back from the future to mess with us or something?”
“Couldn’t it be someone else named Maria?” Brandon interrupted. “Why don’t we ask its last name?”
Lily rolled her eyes, but from the look on his face Maria knew Brandon wasn’t joking. She wondered if he’d seen the cats too.
Maria wished she could be alone so she could do this right, but that was the thing about Acheron: solitude didn’t exist inside these old white walls.
Maria didn’t want to touch the planchette again. Her desperate need to connect with the spirits had evaporated the moment the board finished spelling out her name.
Plus, she could smell baking, too. It smelled like empanadas. The kind Altagracia used to make on Sunday afternoons.
Maria used to like that smell. Tonight it made her nervous.
But it was dangerous to leave a Ouija session unfinished. She remembered that much from the “games” she’d played as a kid. Once you’d opened a link to the spirit world, you had to close it. If you didn’t, the spirits would be free to roam as they pleased.
Maria put a fingertip back on the planchette. Lily did the same. The dusty chandelier over their heads swayed gently and soundlessly.
Except—even with all the windows wide-open, there was no breeze. Not tonight. The air in the room was heavy and still. Heavy, still, and cold.
The old dining hall was on the first floor of their dorm, right next to Maria and Lily’s room, but it wasn’t used anymore. A massive cafeteria had been built in the new student life center on the other side of the hill years before any of them had come to Acheron. This room was much too small for actual dining anyway. It was the size of a small classroom, with just one long wooden table and a straight row of stiff-backed chairs on either side.
Until tonight Maria had only ever been in this room for a minute at a time, cutting through it on her way to the staff kitchen to rinse her coffee mug or avoid one of her so-called friends. But for all the years Maria had lived in this dorm, every time she’d been in this room—and sometimes when she’d only passed by the door in the hall—she’d felt it. The tingly sensation she remembered from staring into that mirror on the porch.
That was why Lily had suggested this room for their first session with the board. That, and because the old dining hall had never been renovated.
The Acheron campus was a converted old plantation, one of the oldest in Virginia. Most of the school buildings were new, but their dorm, where all the high school students lived, had been the plantation’s big house, where the master and his wife and children lived. It was huge and ostentatious—a typical plantation house—and it had been remodeled and expanded over the years, with new technology put in and more rooms added to the wings. This part of the house, though, was original. For all any of them knew, the table they were sitting at was the same one where Acheron’s original owners, the Siward family, had been served dinner by their slaves. The room had high ceilings, a huge fireplace, dusty landscape paintings in moldy frames, and a diamond-patterned wood floor that had probably been beautiful before it was scraped raw by generations of chairs. In the far corner was a rocking chair too rickety for anyone to sit in. The lower-school students liked to spook each other, saying they’d walked by the old dining hall late at night and seen the chair rocking with no one in it.
The nicest artifact in the room, though, was the ancient chandelier over their heads. It had surprised them all by lighting up when Brandon climbed onto the table and pulled the cord, shaking up enough dust they were still sneezing an hour later.
The shadow in the corner of the ceiling was ten feet from the chandelier. It wasn’t moving, but Maria could still see those bent knees and elbows. Crouched. Waiting.
Waiting for what?
The planchette started moving again before Maria could ask the spirit another question.
“What’s it doing?” Brandon said.
Maria didn’t know. She’d never seen this happen before.
The planchette slid into the top right corner of the board. That didn’t make sense. There weren’t any letters or pictures there.
It slid to the bottom left corner. Then the top left. Then the bottom right.
“What does that mean?” Lily said.
A faint hum buzzed in Maria’s ear. It didn’t sound like it was coming from the board this time. It was as if someone was humming a tune.
“Who are you?” Maria whispered. She kept her voice low. No one but the spirit needed to hear. “What happened to you?”
The planchette slid toward the dead center of the board. Then it moved fast, so fast Maria and Lily had to sit up in their chairs to keep up with it. It slid out in an arc, then down, then over, in a figure eight. Then another figure eight. The same pattern, three times, four, without stopping.
“How the hell are you doing that?”
Brandon really couldn’t tell. The girls were both biting their lips, leaning over the board as if they were trying to keep up with the planchette’s movements instead of the other way around. Brandon watched their arms but he couldn’t see their muscles flexing, the way you’d think would happen if you were trying to swoop a chunk of wood in an enormous figure eight.
Then the planchette moved back to the alphabet at the top of the board. It slid from letter to letter, moving so fast Brandon had to lean all the way over the board to see where it paused. It started at F, then moved to I, then R, then E.
“Fire,” Brandon whispered. He shivered.
“Is there something you’d like to tell us?” Maria murmured into the still-swerving planchette. “Do you have a message for the living?”
The planchette started moving even faster as soon as the words had left Maria’s lips. Brandon did his best to scribble down all the letters.
MARIA MARIA MARIA
USTED CONSEGUIRÁ LO QUE MÁS DESEA
“Usted,” Lily whispered, her eyes flashing as she followed the planchette’s movement. “That looks Spanish. What does it mean, Ree? What’s it saying?”
Brandon expected Maria to flinch, the way she always did when someone brought up the fact that she knew Spanish. Maria liked to pretend she was just as pasty white as Brandon and Lily, even though anyone who looked at her knew better.