The room was too dark for them to see much. There was a commotion of fumbling, hushed whispers and giggles as the five participants tried to find a seat. Mr. Drummond parted the soft velvet curtain with a loud clearing of the throat and said, “I say, we could do with some light in here! What, what!”
Two candle flames snapped into life. A woman—Mrs. Hurst, of course—screamed. Her husband grabbed her hands, and she giggled a little. The scream relieved the tension of the room.
“I’m so silly,” she said. “Perfectly alright, just a little nervous. I’m so silly!”
Marjorie MacDonald was the only one of them who didn’t smile at Mrs. Hurst. She kept her head bowed, staring at her clasped twin thumbnails. Her black hair was pinned back into a thick bun. Everything about her was dark except for her pale skin and her white rosary beads, which glowed a little in the candlelight. She kept her left-hand ring finger tucked in, covering the whitened circle of a recently removed wedding band. Between her feet rested a large carpet-sided bag that she kept with her always. She had not said a word to her fellow spiritualists, not in the waiting room before they entered, not seated in the near-dark, not now in the candlelight.
Mrs. Drummond had explained to the group earlier, in what she thought of as quite a discreet tone but which Marjorie could not help but overhear, that Leonora had invited the newcomer because of a recent personal tragedy. Mrs. Drummond reminded them all, quite in the know, that such people only helped to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.
“Is this your first time, dear?” Mrs. Drummond asked Mrs. Hurst. The younger woman smiled and bounced her feathered hat up and down. “Well, no need to be afraid, it’s quite harmless, let me assure you. Harold and I have been coming for years, haven’t we? Speaking to my sister—Alice Evans, may she rest in peace, she was too good for this world, that’s what my mother always said, and it turned out to be true. Dead now eight years this winter. The influenza, you know.” Mrs. Drummond patted at her eyes with a silk handkerchief, then tossed it off to the side.
“Oh, but that’s too terrible!” Mrs. Hurst looked shocked, as though the actual loss of life was something too dramatic to contemplate. “How awful. Isn’t that just awful?”
“Do you have any children?” Mrs. Drummond asked her new friend. Mrs. Hurst blushed and shook her head—they had been married but a year, she explained, although they hoped for children as soon as the Good Lord saw fit to bless them. Marjorie MacDonald didn’t look up from her thumbnails but she clutched the bag tighter with her feet. The corners of her mouth tightened, the flesh stretched nearly enough to see the outline of her bones underneath.
“It’s almost time for tea,” Mr. Drummond said. “Shouldn’t the show have started by now? Damned unprofessional, this is! What, what!”
“Oh, but Harold, a show, really!” Mrs. Drummond laughed but she was angry. It was going to be, she calculated, at least three nights until he rejoined her in the master suite. She turned to Mrs. Hurst so that they could commiserate over the miserable failings of husbands only to discover Mrs. Hurst was still clutching her husband’s hand and now smiling up at him. No doubt she has one foot up his trousers, Mrs. Drummond thought to herself, reassessing her earlier sympathetic measurement of the character of Mrs. Hurst. She looks a bit of a shameless hussy, that one. What would Alice say? Alice is lucky she’s in the grave and doesn’t have to see this—disgraceful is what it is. Disgusting. Positively lurid.
The candles dimmed but did not go out. Their flame color changed from a bright white-gold to a more menacing red, deepening the curtains into shades of blood-violet. The round oak table at which they were seated lost its edges and seemed infinite in the darker light. The whorls of the wood changed shape from tree imperfections into the outlines of what could have been spirits trapped in the bark.
Mrs. Drummond’s cheeks flushed bright as a girl’s, and she leaned forward on her chair. Mr. Drummond felt that teatime was passing rather melodramatically and that, by God, this was the last time he was ever speaking to Alice (what, what!). Mrs. Hurst was pale again and clutching her husband, rather frightened (but oh so excited, perhaps even…titillated? Oh no, perish the thought—blushes, blushes—perish the thought) and Mr. Hurst was enjoying his new bride and thinking that séances were going to be rather good for the marital bed. Marjorie MacDonald rubbed the white negative imprint of her wedding band.
“Welcome my fellow spiritualists and pioneers of the occult!” The voice came from behind the participants, clear and low-pitched—a pleasing voice to match a pleasing figure. Leonora Dewitt was wearing a champagne colored knee-length flapper, a dress that Mrs. Drummond could not approve despite her affection for the medium. Mrs. Hurst, upon witnessing the appreciative stare her husband was giving to the considerable length of leg showing beneath the dress, decided that her knees were too pointed, and that the dress must have been chosen because it made one look away from her face, which was, really, not that pretty. Not pretty at all.
Mr. Hurst thought otherwise, but there was no need for his wife to know that.
Marjorie did not look up from her thumbs, but now she grabbed the white beads of her rosary and began rubbing the slick coverings.
Leonora took her place at the empty chair at the table, brushed her hands twice over its surface. The candles flickered back into brilliance to the delight of Mrs. Hurst. Leonora smiled a little to herself, careful not to look too reassured that her little trick had gone over well. She began to explain the particulars of the séance, that each participant would have a chance to contact one spirit which may, or may not, speak to them through Leonora. Any other spirits encountered along the way, Leonora said, with a quick dart of the eyes of Mrs. Hurst’s heaving form, should be harmless. Mr. Hurst grabbed his wife—for moral support.
“Who would like to begin tonight’s proceedings?” Leonora eyed each customer in turn. Mrs. Drummond was sitting back with the relaxed posture of an old hand at spiritualism while Mr. Drummond fingered his tie and thought of the cigars tucked into his desk, the ones he allowed himself to enjoy after teatime. Mrs. Hurst looked faint with delight and dread and Mr. Hurst looked faint with split desire between his wife and his delectable medium. Marjorie met Leonora’s eyes. She was a new customer and Leonora wasn’t sure how to read her. Her eyes, so dark that it was impossible to tell where pupil ended and iris began, were not pleasant eyes.
“Can you feel Alice?” Mrs. Drummond asked. “Is she here tonight?”
Leonora’s eyes rocked back into her head and she began to sway a little in her chair. She rolled her head back and forth on her neck, aware even with her eyes closed that Mr. Hurst was ogling her long expanse of throat. Perhaps imagining tasting it with his tongue.
“I command the spirit of Alice Evans. Alice, if you are here, tap twice on the table.” Leonora closed her eyes and waited. No one at the table breathed for fifteen seconds until the tapping sounded. Bump! Bump! Mrs. Drummond let out a heavy sigh and Mrs. Hurst moved her husband’s hand into her lap.
“She is here. Alice is here. She is sad.” This was a new one—Leonora had never made Alice sad before, but tonight it seemed like a good idea.
“Alice! Alice! I’m here, its me—Sarah! Oh, Alice, don’t be sad, I’m here!”
“For chrissakes,” Mr. Drummond said under his breath, “how can a damn corpse be sad?”
“Alice misses you. It’s cold where she is.” Mrs. Drummond’s shoulders were shaking a little as she let the emotion carry her over into tears.
“Oh Alice,” she sobbed. “Oh my Alice.” Mr. Drummond couldn’t help but remember the time when Alice Evans had been alive—she had not been invited more than a handful of times to dinner. Still, sisterly devotion came on strong at the oddest moments.
“Alice Evans, can you hear your sister? Can you hear how she cries? Alice Evans, speak to us!” The table, through a complicated system of wiring and pedals, jerked, groaned, and began to levitate over the laps of the astonished participants. It was a new implement to her repertoire of the paranormal and, Leonora thought to herself, worth every damned penny. Mrs. Drummond had now given herself over to loud keening, and Mrs. Hurst would have been terrified, if it were not for the feel of her husband’s very warm fingers on her very upper thigh.
At the other side of the table, Marjorie had gone very still and was watching Leonora with wide eyes. She placed her hands on the table, fingers spread wide, testing the weight beneath them as though afraid the table might not support her.
“The Devil’s own table,” she whispered. It was the first time she had spoken since her arrival. She reached between her feet and hugged her bag to her chest. The whites of her eyeballs shone in the darkened room.
Something in Marjorie’s bag began to rattle quietly. Mr. Drummond turned to stare at Marjorie, who clutched her bag tighter to her chest.
“Alice is trying to tell us something,” Leonora went on, unwinding into her grand finale of Alice. She was tired of Alice Evans. She saw the Drummonds at least twice a month—there was not much room for creative expansion with so much exposure. “Alice Evans, speak to us of the beyond!”
The rattling in Marjorie’s bag got louder. This time everyone heard and only Marjorie and Leonora seemed to sense that it was not a regular part of the program. Leonora frowned, trying to determine whether or not Marjorie was onto her scheme, and if so, whether or not she had planted something in order to attempt to prove her a fraud. Try it, Leonora thought as she glared at the older woman. Just you fucking try it.
“Alice, please, speak to me!” Mrs. Drummond begged.
“And make it fast!” Mr. Drummond added.
The candles went out. Marjorie’s bag was now chattering so hard she was having trouble holding it. The room went cold, then hot suddenly, and then so cold the six participants could see their breath ripple from their mouths like fog.
“…Alice?” Mrs. Drummond had attended numerous séances, but this was the first time the cold trickle of fear had made its way into her stomach. This was the first time Mrs. Drummond believed that she did not have control over the proceedings.
Marjorie’s bag began to knock itself against the table. Whatever objects were hidden in her bag were now making so much noise it was hard to hear anything else.
“Alice?” Leonora asked, for a brief moment doubting her skill as a charlatan. Perhaps, she thought to herself, perhaps there really are ghosts?
The corners of the room seemed to pulse with the sound waves of a child’s laughter that broke over the room. It was not Alice. It could not be Alice.
Marjorie stood up at her seat, one hand pressing the rosary to her neck. Her bag began to make the noise again and she threw it on the table.
Mrs. Hurst started screaming as she felt the invisible fingertips of a young child rubbing the back of her neck.
“Leonora, what is happening?” Mrs. Drummond screamed. “Can’t you make it stop? Where is Alice?” The child’s giggling became louder and louder until it drowned out even Mrs. Hurst. Marjorie doubled over as if in pain. A mother knows the sound of her child’s laughter. Even just one giggle.
Then, several things happened at once.
The candles relit themselves until the room was nearly as bright as day.
The chairs dove towards the table, taking Marjorie’s feet from under her and squeezing the Drummonds, the Hursts, and Leonora against the oak.
The locks on the door bolted themselves.
Most impossible of all, two nearly round bone-white objects rolled from Marjorie’s bag onto the table.
Two bright child-sized skulls shone in the candlelight and caught the stares of the six spiritualists.
Bad things are not supposed to happen in the light.
“Oh my God,” Leonora whispered. “Oh my God.”
“Mother! Mother!” The child’s voice echoed around the round—now there were two voices. One screamed the word joyfully, now one wailed, now one cried it out in fear. “Mother! Mother! Mother!”
Marjorie started crying at the table. She reached for the skulls of her children but they rolled away from her into the center of the table, chattering. All the women around the table were crying. Mr. Hurst held onto his wife, mouth open in terror, and Mr. Drummond began to bluster loudly, cigars forgotten.
“I say, this isn’t funny! Do you have any idea who I am? Stop this….this ridiculous display right now! I am not going to stand for this!” Mrs. Drummond was speechless for the first time in as many months as Mr. Drummond could remember. “You are frightening the missus!”
The table began to bang up and down, sending the skulls airborne each time, but they rolled no closer to Marjorie.
“My babies! My babies!” Marjorie cried. “My little lost angels!” The table began to shake harder and an odd green glow hovered over the skulls.
“What have you done?” Mrs. Drummond broke her silence on her side of the table.
“Make it stop,” Mrs. Hurst kept whimpering. “Please, God, make it stop!”
“I didn’t mean it! Tell them I didn’t mean it!” Marjorie turned to Leonora, grasping her sleeve in her hand.
Leonora’s eyes were glued to the slowly growing green haze in the center of the table. She didn’t hear Marjorie. All six were glued to their seats, unknowing whether or not they might be allowed to stand up but afraid to try.
“I didn’t mean it,” Marjorie repeated. “I didn’t mean it! Tell them I didn’t mean it!”
The green haze resolved itself into a child’s face outlined in red. The little girl smiled, one tooth missing, and then disappeared, with the green fog, completely.
Marjorie looked around at each member at the table, tearing her fingernails along her cheeks, her neck, as though she couldn’t stand her flesh over her bones, as though she longed to join her children at the center of the table.
No one could speak.
“Mother! Mother! Mother!” The cries had decreased in volume but not in frequency. The table, finally, was still. The room was cold and bright.
“I held them,” Marjorie said. “I held their bodies. I was their mother, right up to the end. Doesn’t that count for anything?” She began to pull out large clumps of her hair. “Jesus God!”
“Mother! Mother! Mother!”
“STOP IT!” Marjorie screamed.
“Mother! Mother! Mother!”
“Make it stop! Make it stop! Help me!” Marjorie looked around the table. “Why won’t any of you help me!”
Mrs. Drummond crossed herself. Everyone wanted it to stop. No one knew what to do.
Marjorie screamed and with a superhuman effort, pushed herself out of her chair and grabbed the twin skulls resting at the center of the table. Bringing down first one and then the other, she smashed them against the oak table over and over. The cries of “Mother!” grew fainter as the bone chipped away. A jaw fell to the floor. The cries stopped completely.
The candles burned bright as a second sun. No one moved. Marjorie held the last bits of her children in her hands, hearing their cries for her over and over again. The screams would never stop.
The doors unbolted themselves and Mrs. Hurst fled the room, one hand clamped to her mouth, keeping her insides in place. Mr. Hurst, with a quick nod and smile to Leonora, followed. Leonora stood up from the table, and in a daze, began to clean up the bone shards, sweeping them into her palm, her fingers shaking. She bumped into the table, and sat down hard into her chair. What now? What was left now?
Mrs. Drummond and her husband stood up. Now that the horrible things were over, Mr. Drummond could not stop thinking about his cigars again. It was a little late, and that silly scare had put him into a terrible mood, but a Cuban or two would surely settle the events of the day.
“Dear me,” Mrs. Drummond said as she left the room, “that was different. A bit grotesque, and much too melodramatic for my tastes, but goodness, exciting! Leonora was in full form today—poor Alice must have been frightened out of her wits! Well dear, what did you think?”
“Cheap tricks, all of it,” Mr. Drummond said, reluctant now to believe that he even had been frightened. “I knew those skulls were papier-mache the second I saw them. Quite a show, what, what!”
Halley Sutton spent her childhood traveling through tiny towns in the midwest and writing letters to her favorite book heroines, although none were actually mailed. She lives in Oakland, CA.