Authors: Diane Chamberlain
Tags: #General Fiction
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Grace County, North Carolina
I leaned my bike against our lopsided porch and tiptoed up the steps, still real shaky from the last few hours. It had to be four in the morning by now and I’d be in deep trouble if I got caught sneaking in, so I pushed the front door open as soft as I could. I knew right away I was doomed. From our bedroom, I heard Mary Ella yelling, “Mama! Mama!” Something terrible was happening for her to yell like that. Our mama’s been gone for a long time, locked up with the other crazy people at Dix Hospital. I called out for her myself sometimes when I was scared or hurt, even if it did no good. Even if I couldn’t really remember Mama at all.
Mary Ella must have been having a bad dream. I stood still as a statue in the darkness, wondering if I could quiet her before Nonnie woke up and caught me sneaking in, but I was too late. My eyes was getting used to the dark and I could see the couch was empty, the sheets half off the cushions; Nonnie was already up. Usually I could sneak past her while she snored. But there wasn’t nothing usual about tonight.
I heard Nonnie talking to Mary Ella in the bedroom. “It’s all right, child,” she said. “Everything’ll be all right.” But I could tell by the way Mary Ella was hollerin’ that nothing was all right. I wanted to turn around and run back outside again, even though it was cold and windy and pitch black. Instead, I tore off my scarf and the old coat that used to belong to Daddy and ran across the living room to the bedroom. The best I could hope for was that Nonnie’d be thinking so much about Mary Ella that she didn’t care I’d been out all night.
Mary Ella was propped up against the headboard, her wild yellow hair lit up by the lamp on the dresser. The ratty blanket covered her big belly like she was trying to hide a pumpkin, and her face, usually so pale this wintry time of year, was red from her screaming. Nonnie pressed a damp rag to her forehead, but when she spotted me, she let the rag drop to the bed and the next thing I knew, she was swatting my arms with her swole-up hands.
“Where’ve you been, you little tramp?” she shouted.
“I ain’t a tramp!” I yelled back. I didn’t think you could be a tramp at thirteen. Mary Ella, now, she was a different story. Having a baby at fifteen pretty much made her one for sure, even though I defended her to anyone at school who said a word against her after she got kicked out for being in the family way.
There was no time for bickering, and I was glad when Nonnie stopped hitting me and sat down on the bed, wiping Mary Ella’s face with the rag again.
!” Mary Ella shouted. She hardly seemed to see either of us while she hollered and cried out for Mama and gripped the blanket in her fists. I didn’t know what to do. I pried loose one of her hands to try to hold it, but she pulled it away. We wasn’t the kind of sisters that held hands, anyway. We might of slept in the same bed every night, but we didn’t talk much or share no secrets. And Mary Ella had plenty of them, for sure.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked Nonnie. “It’s too soon for the baby, ain’t it?”
“The baby don’t seem to know it,” Nonnie said.
That scared me. Things could go wrong when you had a baby, and Mary Ella sounded for all the world like she could die. I remembered she said that when our daddy died in the tractor accident, she saw his spirit go up in the sky. The way she looked right now, I was afraid I could see hers heading in the same direction, but I think it was just all that yellow hair looking like a halo around her head.
“There, there, child,” Nonnie said, her voice nearly swallowed up by Mary Ella’s screams. Nonnie looked up at me. “You need to run to the Gardiners’ and call Mrs. Werkman,” she said.
“Now?” I said. “It’s four in the morning!”
“And don’t I know it!” Nonnie smacked my arm again. “Four in the morning and my granddaughter’s out there running wild. That’s just what I need. Another Mary Ella.”
“I ain’t nothing like her.” I couldn’t be like Mary Ella if I tried. She was the kind of girl that made boys lose their minds when she walked past, even though she didn’t dress trampy or do nothing to tease them. It was just something about her that made boys crazy. I might of had hair almost the same color and eyes almost the same blue, but I was pretty sure the day would never come when a boy lost his mind over wanting me.
“Go call Mrs. Werkman!” Nonnie said again.
I thought she was so upset, she wasn’t thinking straight. “Nonnie, it’s the middle of the night,” I said, like I was talking to a five-year-old. “She won’t be in her office yet, and anyway, it’s Nurse Ann we need right now, not a social worker.”
“Don’t you argue with me, missy,” she said. “Mrs. Werkman wrote her home phone number on the back of her card. Why’d she do that if she didn’t want us to use it? You know which cabinet it’s in, right? Go call her.”
“But we need
. You’re not making any sense!” The older I got, the more I realized Nonnie wasn’t real smart.
She tried to hit me again, but I ducked out of the way and almost knocked over the lamp.
“Do as I say.” She pointed to Mary Ella, whose face was tightened up with pain. “Do you see your sister here? She’s a right mess, and you already made us wait too long. I couldn’t leave her alone to go and call myself. You get over there right now!”
I left the bedroom and ran to the kitchen, honestly glad to get out of that room and all the shouting. I found two little white cards in the cabinet with the Ball jars of tomatoes that Nonnie put up last summer. One card was Mrs. Werkman’s, the other was Nurse Ann’s. I threw on Daddy’s coat again as I ran outside, sticking the cards in my pocket. I got back on the bike and rode through the woods, heading for the Gardiners’ house. I wondered if Henry Allen would be in bed by the time I got there. It seemed like no more than a minute had passed since I left him on Deaf Mule Road after our crazy adventure tonight.
Me and him had talked a lot about Mary Ella while we was together tonight, and now I wondered if that was a coincidence or if I somehow knew she was in trouble. Usually when we snuck out, we’d do something fun, maybe go to the pond that was froze over and skate on it on the soles of our shoes, since we didn’t have no skates. Henry Allen actually did have some—his daddy owned the farm where me and Nonnie and Mary Ella lived in one of the old tenants’ houses—and he had lots of things I couldn’t never dream of having. But he never brung his skates, so I didn’t feel bad about having none of my own. Sometimes me and him would meet up in one of the tobacco barns, empty now since it was winter, and just talk, or we’d ride our bikes through the woods, pretending we was cowboys on our horses. Sometimes we’d go to the graveyard and ride between the headstones like it was an obstacle course. I really didn’t like when we did that on account of Daddy being there, but I went along with it anyway.
Even though I knew we was wrong to sneak out at night like we did, we usually did no harm. I couldn’t say that about tonight, though. Tonight we done two things that was flat-out wrong: We broke into our little Baptist church and we messed with a Ouija board.
The Ouija board belonged to the Gardiners’ maid, Desiree. Them boards was evil—everybody knew that, including Desiree, who never let nobody know she had one, but Henry Allen saw it one day when he was helping her move the dresser in her room. He was only about ten then and when he asked her about it, she said it was the work of the devil and she was going to throw it away. She never did, though, and he’d been waiting all this time to get his hands on it but couldn’t till tonight, when Desiree was off visiting her sister for the weekend. So I guess we could add stealing to all the things we done wrong, even though it was really just borrowing. Henry Allen was probably putting it back in Desiree’s room right this minute.
I’m not sure why we ended up in the church. We was going to use the Ouija board at the graveyard, but it was so cold and windy that we decided to try the church doors and one was open, like it was inviting us to come in. The church is teeny tiny and I know it like I know our own kitchen. I been going there my whole life, though Nonnie and Mary Ella stopped going because of the shame when Mary Ella started getting big, and then I had to get a ride with the Gardiners. I’d sit in the pew next to Henry Allen and we’d try not to laugh at Pastor Kett’s bushy eyebrows or the way Mrs. Patrick sang louder than anybody with her squeaky high voice. We didn’t want his mama and daddy to get mad. I tried never to make the Gardiners mad, because we owed them so much.
Without their Christian kindness,
Nonnie always said,
we’d be out on the street.
“We shouldn’t be here,” I whispered to Henry Allen as we walked inside. The church seemed really different from a Sunday morning when it was filled with light and people dressed in their finest and music from the little organ and Pastor Kett’s booming voice. Now it was quiet and pitch dark and just plain spooky. Me and Henry Allen both had lanterns and we put them on the floor between the pews, hoping they didn’t give off enough light that somebody could see us. By that point, though, it wasn’t people I was scared of. I worried we brung the devil into the church along with that board.
“Let’s set it up on the altar,” Henry Allen said.
“No,” I said. That would be carrying our evil too far.
“Chicken.” He laughed. The lantern light from the floor turned his face into a mask of creepy shadows, and I couldn’t look at him for long. Usually I liked looking at him. He had blue eyes the same color as mine but his hair was dark and straight, always flopping down in his eyes. He was a nice-looking boy except with them shadows on his face.
“Let’s put it here on the floor so we’ll be hid by the pews if anyone looks in the windows,” I said.
“Nobody’s around to look,” he said, but he got down on the floor with me and set up the board between us, the light flickering across the letters and numbers.
“How’s this work?” I asked, shivering. I wasn’t sure if I was shaking all over from the cold or my nerves.
“We put our hands—just our fingertips—on this here thing—it’s called a ‘plancher’ or something like that—and ask the spirits questions and it moves around and gives us answers.” He showed me where he’d put his fingers and where I should put mine. “We got to take off our gloves,” he said, peeling his off. My fingers already poked out of my gloves in a couple of places, but I took them off anyway to do it right. I set my fingertips on the plancher thing.
“I think messing with this in a church is the worst way of doing it,” I whispered.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just concentrate. Don’t think about anything except talking to the spirits.”
I felt like everyone buried in the graveyard was out there waiting for us to get started. I pictured them like a big wall of ghosts ready to have their day, and I wondered if Daddy was one of them. I remembered him real well even though I was only five when he got killed. Him being Nonnie’s son, she always talked about him and kept him alive in my head. He was a real good man.
“Can we talk to my daddy?” I asked.
“I don’t think we have a say over it,” Henry Allen said. “Whoever comes is who we get. Hush now.” He shut his eyes, frowning, and we both got real quiet. I didn’t like how the lantern light made his face look and wondered if my own face was just as craggy and scary.
“Is anybody here?” Henry Allen asked quietly.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the plancher thing started moving slowly. “You’re moving it!” I said.
“Shh! I’m not.”
The plancher went right up to the
on the board. I could of sworn a cold finger ran up my spine. I even turned my head to look behind me, but no one was there.
“What’s your name?” Henry Allen asked.
The plancher started moving again. “Are you moving it?” I whispered, and he shook his head. I believed him. My whole life, there was one person I knew I could trust and it was Henry Allen Gardiner. The plancher spelled out
so fast, our fingers could hardly keep up. I couldn’t breathe. This was real! We was in touch with a real spirit.
“You know anybody named Ruby?” I asked. Henry Allen shook his head again.
“Thanks for coming to visit with us, Ruby,” Henry Allen said, real polite, like he wanted to keep on her good side. “Can you answer some questions?”
“How old are you?” he asked. “I mean, when you died. How old was you?”