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A girl’s first high school Halloween party is a stressful event. You want to look hot but not slutty, and you need to look like you put work into your costume, but not too much work. It’s a delicate balance when you’re working on a budget, but I landed on Bride of Frankenstein. I already had a white formal dress that fit just right, and my mom helped me with the crazy hair and eyebrows.
It was October, 1986, and I’d only moved to Flatland, Texas, that summer. It didn’t leave much time to make friends before the start of my junior year, so I was thrilled when I met Annie Edwards at marching band practice. She was outgoing, friendly, and popular—everything I wasn’t. So I helped her with the clarinet her mother made her play, and Annie made sure I had fun. It was Annie who got me invited to Stephanie Hughes’ annual Halloween shindig. October had brought a strange melancholy to the atmosphere at school, so it would be nice to have some fun.
The first freeze was a few weeks off and Annie was between boyfriends, so we decided to walk to the party together. She was dressed as Barbara Eden, the genie from that old TV show.
“Is there going to be beer at the party?” I asked. “My dad will kill me if there’s beer at this party. It took my mom three days to convince him to let me go at all.”
Annie laughed until she snorted. “Lucy, you’ve got to learn to relax. If God didn’t want teenagers to drink, he wouldn’t have invented gum and mouthwash.”
“What else should I expect? What did you guys do at Stephanie’s party last year?”
Annie stopped and grabbed my arm, making me stumble. “Don’t bring up last year.” Her tone was sharp. “I had to pull serious strings to even get you invited. Just don’t mention last Halloween, okay?”
“Fine,” I said, pulling away from her. “Jeez. I’ll keep my mouth shut. You know I appreciate you sticking your neck out for me.”
Her sudden attitude shift evaporated with a smile. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s hurry up and get there before all the good boys get picked over. I’m not in the mood to wait for the Great Pumpkin all by myself.”
I shivered. “I can’t believe I let you talk me out of wearing my coat. It’s freezing out here.”
She scoffed. “It’s just a few more blocks to Stephanie’s house. Just enough time to get your high beams on. Consider it your incentive to get a ride home from Daniel Shultz.” I tried to slap her away as she elbowed me in the ribs.
Daniel Shultz was a senior. The poor boy had no idea how bad I had it for him, but Annie loved to tease me about it. He wanted to run away from Flatland to direct movies, and all I wanted in the whole world was to run away with him. I could write screenplays or maybe help with casting. Okay, so the details were fuzzy, but It would be worth it—even when my dad tracked us down and murdered the both of us.
Stephanie lived in a nice two-story house, a rare thing in our town. We got to her front door just as the streetlights popped on. Annie rang the doorbell and turned to me. “Whatever you do, don’t let me get drunk and make out with Jeff Gill. Promise?”
“What?” I asked as the door flung open.
Webbed fingers groped for us as a green monster roared in our faces. I screamed, but it was more out of reflex than fear. Jeff took off a green rubber mask and laughed at me as I caught my breath.
Annie rolled her eyes. “What are you supposed to be, Mr. Gill?”
Jeff held up the mask. It was some kind of fish monster. “I’m the Gill Man, baby. Get it? Gill? The Gill Man?”
“You’re going to have to try harder than that.” Annie planted her hand in his chest and shoved him out of the way. I put on my best along-for-the-ride grin as I walked past.
The house was a nice mix of sexy and scary. In the crowd I spotted a Romero Zombie, Cleopatra, two Jason Vorheeses, half the cast of Rocky Horror, a Mike Myers, and three sexy nurses who regretted not coordinating better. The place was already a mess.
“Where’s Stephanie’s parents?” I asked.
Annie shrugged. “Bermuda? I dunno. Wait here a minute!” She disappeared around a corner.
“Annie! Get back here!” It was too late. I was abandoned. But, as always, there was a method to Annie’s madness.
The sound of my pleas drew the attention of a welcome face from the kitchen. Lo and behold, it was Daniel Shultz in a black outfit and a polka dot necktie. A rubber ear poked up out of his chest pocket like a silk handkerchief. “Lucy! I wasn’t sure you were coming.”
Annie, I thought, you little sneak. You set this up.
Daniel handed me a plastic cup full of foul-smelling liquid. “Got you a beer. Don’t know what kind it is. Whatever keg fell off the truck, I guess.”
“Thanks!” I sipped what could only have been very expired beer. Sorry, Daddy, I thought. One of the sexy nurses started up the stereo.
“Love your costume!” Daniel shouted over the Bon Jovi cassette. “You look even better than Elsa Lanchester.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I said.
Daniel cupped his ear. “What?”
“I said, ‘Thanks!’” I gestured at black jeans and dress clothes. “Who are you supposed to be?”
He looked frustrated. “I’m Jeffrey Beaumont from Blue Velvet. You know, the David Lynch movie?”
I could only shrug.
“It just came out.” His shoulders drooped. “Crap. I knew I should have gone with Eraserhead.”
“Definitely,” I said, nursing my beer and making a mental list for the video store.
Daniel looked back over my shoulder. “Oh, crap.”
I turned to see the most pathetic Raggedy Ann I’d ever seen. Stephanie Hughes’ costume was right out of a storybook, but she looked like she’d just gotten home from a funeral. She must have used the old talcum powder trick that clowns use to set her doll makeup, because she’d already been crying. “Have you seen Jamie?” she asked. She meant Jamie Goldberg, another friend of hers and Annie’s.
“Sorry,” I said, but Stephanie just walked away in a daze. I squeezed Daniel’s arm and asked, “What was that about?”
“Right, you couldn’t have known. Stephanie’s boyfriend, Will Freese, he got in a car wreck last Halloween. Nobody’s fault, just a freak thing. He never woke up and died a few hours later.”
Damn it, Annie, I thought. This is the kind of thing you’re supposed to tell me about.
Daniel sighed. “None of us are over it, but Steph still has it pretty bad. I’m surprised she even wanted to have another party this year, but it’s like a tradition.”
The front door opened and Jamie stepped inside, dressed as Jennifer Beals from Flashdance. She gripped a bag from Toy Castle, the big toy store that looked like a castle, tight against her chest. “Where’s Steph?”
“She was just looking for you,” I said, pointing the direction Stephanie had wandered off. Jamie ran past without so much as a dramatic hair toss. Daniel’s eye followed her with concern creasing his forehead.
With a gasp, I remembered Annie’s request. “Help me find my friend before she’s carrying a fish baby?” Daniel grinned and grabbed my hand, dragging me from room to room. We searched in vain for Annie and her monster.
We made the loop and returned to the living room. “Can’t say we didn’t try,” I said as we flopped down on the couch. “What was that Pencilneck movie you were talking about?” Daniel laughed and proceeded to tell me about a weirdo film I had zero interest in ever seeing. We found a middle ground and talked about old Hitchcock movies, which my dad was a freak for. My theory was that Dad was studying up. That way, when he finally killed me for missing curfew, he’d get away with it scot-free.
We talked for hours, until the keg was empty and the party started to thin out. That was when I heard someone giggle behind the couch. I found Annie and Jeff entwined under a blanket on the floor, looking embarrassed.
“What?” Jeff asked. “The bedrooms were taken.”
“No they weren’t,” Annie said, shoving him.
“When did you two get back there?” Daniel asked.
“Somewhere between Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest,” Annie said. “Help me up.”
We clumsily pulled her over onto the couch, just in time for Stephanie and Jamie to appear. “We’ve been looking for you guys,” Stephanie said. “You’re the ones who knew Will best. Come on.”
“Um,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Steph,” Annie said. “Lucy’s cool.”
Stephanie sighed. “Fine, whatever. You can come. We need six people, anyway.”
The four of us followed Stephanie and Jamie up the stairs. In the hallway, Stephanie pulled a hanging cord, which brought down a ladder to the attic. I looked at Daniel and Annie, but they were both looking up into the attic. No answers there. I looked at Jeff, but he was floating along with a severe case of the drunken make-out happies. Taking a deep breath, I followed the other five up the ladder.
The attic wasn’t a totally finished room, but it had a wooden floor. Unlike every other attic I had been, this one was uncluttered. It held no boxes, Christmas decorations, or baby cribs. But on the floor was a circle of lit candles. A Ouija board, one of those things with all the letters and words, was in the middle of the circle. I hadn’t played with a spirit board since I was at a junior high slumber party back in New Jersey. We all frowned, even Jeff.
“Everyone sit,” Stephanie said.
Daniel stammered, “Steph, I don’t think—“
“Everyone sit!” she screeched.
Our butts hit the floor. It was a surreal scene, with a swamp monster, some guy with an ear in his pocket, a dancer, a living doll, a blonde Genie, and Frankenstein’s girlfriend all having a huddle.
Jamie picked up the planchette, the heart-shaped plastic piece you use with a Ouija board. It had an open circle in the middle so you could see what word or letter it was indicating. “You all know what this is. It’s a spirit board. They used to make them out of coffins.”
In an impressive imitation of Scooby Doo, Jeff asked, “Are we going to talk to g-g-g-ghosts with it, Raggy?”
Jamie flipped him the bird. “Shut up, Jeff. I had to go to four stores to find this thing. They’re way too popular on Halloween. Everyone know the rules?”
Daniel, Annie, Jeff, and I said, “No.”
“Rule number one: never ask about God.”
“Or politics,” Jeff said. Annie slapped him in the back of the head.
Jamie ignored him. “Rule number two: never ask when you are going to die. And rule three is never ask where the gold is buried.”
“Stephanie,” Annie asked, “who are going to talk to with this thing?”
“My Raggedy Andy,” Stephanie said. “We’re going to talk to Will.”
I squirmed, and I wasn’t alone.
“That’s a bad idea,” Daniel said. “Aren’t you talking to someone about this stuff? I think—“
Stephanie slammed her hands on the dusty floor. The sound echoed in the empty room. “We’re talking to Will, and that’s that.”
The rest of us murmured in agreement. But all I could think was, Oh my God, we’re going to die. Jamie will get possessed by a demon and wear our guts for garters.
“Everybody put your hands on the plant chat thingy,” Jamie said. “Don’t try to move it.”
“Wait a second,” Stephanie said, taking off her necklace, a silver locket. It slid from her fingers, coiling into a pile on the edge of the board. “That will keep evil spirits from coming through the board.”
I gulped as we reached for the planchette.
“William Freese,” Jamie said in her best attempt at a psychic performer. “Your closest friends—” She stopped and looked at me. “Your closest friends and one tagalong wish to speak to you tonight, on the first anniversary of your death.” She nudged Stephanie with her elbow. “Go ahead, ask your question.”
“Are you there, Will?” Stephanie asked.
The planchette didn’t move at first. Then it slowly slid up to one corner of the board, next to a smiling sun, where it pointed to the word ‘Yes.’
Annie whimpered. Jeff took one hand off the planchette and put his arm around her.
Stephanie pressed her lips together. “Will, baby, I miss you so much.”
The planchette moved under our fingers. M-E-2.
I knew how a Ouija board worked. It was just a subconscious ideomotor response, like with divining rods and pendulums. Your body made movements so tiny you couldn’t see or feel them, and that moved the planchette around the board. It was stronger with so many of us, sure, but it was just kids playing pretend. But if I knew all that, why was my heart pounding?
Daniel spoke up. “Is there anything you want to tell us, Will?”
The planchette moved back up to ‘Yes.’ Then it quickly slid around the board. M-O-V-E-O-N.
I looked at Daniel, studying his face. He caught me looking and nodded.
He’s trying to help her, I realized. Give her some kind of closure. That’s the sweetest thing ever. Creepy, but sweet. I would totally be his casting director. I would be his casting director so hard.
Stephanie was on the verge of tears. “Sweetie, I won’t let you go. I can’t. How could you ask me to do that?”
The planchette didn’t move. I glanced across at Daniel, in his spot beside Stephanie, and he only looked at me expectantly. Oh, I get it. He can’t do it every time, or it will be too obvious. So I spelled out B-E-C-U-Z-I-L-U-V-U. Daniel winked his approval at me.
Stephanie exploded into sobs and grabbed Daniel. I was ashamed to think, Girl, I get that you’re going through a thing. But I will claw your eyes right out of your—
“Will wouldn’t say that!” she blubbered. “It’s a lie!”
Jamie patted her on the back. “Why don’t we ask him something? Like a test? Something only Will would know.”
“Okay.” Stephanie sniffled. “Ask where we first did it.”
“Uh,” I said.
“If this is really Will,” Jamie said, “where did you and Stephanie first do it?”
I raised my eyebrows at Daniel, but he only made a tiny shrug toward Stephanie. With her locked onto him, he couldn’t move the planchette. I glanced at Annie, but she and Jeff were busy screwing each other with their eyes.
I sucked in some air and exhaled slowly. Daniel finally moved the planchette without my help. A-T-I-K.
It was a longshot, but the payoff was worth it. Stephanie believed it was her lost love. She let go of Daniel, so the rest of the conversation was easier. Long after my curfew, she said her goodbyes and we blew out the candles.
We helped Stephanie get the last of the stragglers out. Then she hugged the five of us, even me. “You’re a great friend, Suzy,” she said.
“It’s Lucy,” I said, but she didn’t hear me. Jamie promised to look after her for the night. Daniel offered the rest of us a ride home in his Pinto. Jeff and Annie piled into the tiny backseat and started going at it. I tucked my hair down and slid into the passenger seat.
We drifted together through the early morning. Daniel interrupted my thoughts of an impending death at the hands of my father. “That was a great save up there. I didn’t even know they’d had sex. How’d you guess it was in the attic?”
My heart skipped a beat. “Are you serious? That wasn’t me.”
We stared at each other across the car. “Oh my God,” Daniel said.
“It was me, you ninnies.” Annie’s head poked up between us. “She told me all about their secret love nest.” The four of us laughed for five full blocks.
“Great idea, Daniel,” Annie said, still gasping for breath. “Telling Stephanie to move on was exactly what she needed to hear.”
“That wasn’t me,” he said. “That was Lucy.”
“Not me,” I said. “If it wasn’t you guys, it must have been Jamie.”
“Nuh-uh,” Annie said. “No way. Jamie totally believes all that stuff. Her room is like a New Age crystal emporium. It must have been Jeff.”
Jeff’s voice floated up from the back. “I don’t even know what you guys are talking about. The Gill Man was too busy dreaming of Genie to pay attention to the craziness in that attic.”
Annie, Daniel, and I stared at each other.
“Happy Halloween,” I whispered.