December 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
by AprilJo Murphy
We believed in ghosts then. At night, huddled over Ouija boards, we’d try to speak with spirits lingering in the hallways of our ramshackle houses, repeatedly denying that we were moving the needle as the game spelled out answers to questions too personal to ask each other.
“Who hurt you?”
“Why haven’t you moved on?”
Clare swore that her house was haunted by Annie a young woman who had died from a fever the previous century and been buried on the property. I didn’t believe Clare, but later, I felt a tug at the sheets and saw the shadow of a woman at the end of the bunk bed, darker than the darkness that surrounded her. I don’t know if I dreamed her into existence, her shade a specter of my own gloom, but the apparition fascinated and frightened me. There were forces in my life that I didn’t understand or control, but the idea that I had an ability to see what others couldn’t gave me an intoxicating taste of power.
One of the weird things about being a teenage girl is that it’s easier to believe you can talk to ghosts than it is to believe that you can talk to people. Was Annie’s shade a projection of my fears about the future – womanly – me that hovered at the edge of everything?
When you’re a teenager, everyone assumes that you have a future, your whole life is future, but I carried the past. At school, I was too afraid of what people already might know – imagined whispers like “isn’t that the foster care girl?” “she dresses like that because her parents split up and don’t have any money” – projected my insecurities the way I conjured Annie’s ghost. I only felt comfortable rejecting people before they rejected me. I imagined myself a willing outcast, living on the borders of society where things were rough but honest.
With dirty blonde hair, a tiny and wiry frame, and nails she filed pointy and painted black, Clare seemed powerful. She wore large glasses that covered most of her angled, lightly freckled face, rimmed with wire painted dark purple with nail polish. Her thin neck was covered in pentagrams and runic symbols, hanging on a black choker that looked like a tattoo. Sometimes, Clare showed up to school wearing black leather pants that squeaked when she walked. Her power, came from her difference. In my middle school, full of khakis and LL Bean backpacks, her pseudo-goth look and stony silence was magnetic. She didn’t care, and I wanted to not care too.
After my parent’s volatile divorce together, I’d been different. After the end but before I’d met Clare, I’d dropped out of things I’d loved – choir, band, drama club – and wore my broken home like armor. I was wary of boys and made no effort to chase them. The split had left us poor, so there was no mall or movies. Trying to be friendly felt fake. I found myself drawn to other kids who had darkness hanging about them, and Clare’s equal contempt for preteen life and love of the supernatural made us easy friends.
Clare and her group of friends were rejects too. They came from lives just as broken. Even though my parents may have been violently married and dramatically divorced, I knew who my father was. Even though my mother had moved my three siblings and me from a large ranch in the country into a small house across from a bar in the middle of town, my friends considered my house fancy because pipes weren’t leaking through the floors and my brothers had a Nintendo 64 with all four controllers. Things that I found embarrassing, like the constant screaming and the holes my brother punched through walls, were normal for them too. We were all damaged, living in wounded places.
Clare lived on the other side of the Willow Street Bridge, close to the town’s abandoned textile mills and warehouses. These shadows of the past appeared everywhere; our landscape was littered with decay. Between Clare and me, at the end of the now seemingly misnamed College Street, a five building brick campus, a discarded school for the dumb and the blind, slowly crumbled.
At her house, picking my way through the cluttered hallways and listening to the din of her mother’s TV, I could feel echoes of something gone wrong, lingering in the corner with cobwebs and cat fur. This sensation comforted me, felt familiar.
Clare’s cluttered room was at the top of the stairs. Next to her bed, Clare had a see-though phone, the plastic yellowed over the colored wires. The walls, covered in 70s wood paneling, were plastered with felt posters of unicorns and wizards. Everything looked second hand, shabby, for the room of a 12 year old girl.
We put the Ouija board in the middle of a masking tape circle on the thin carpet. Someone would turn off the lights, and we’d light candles and incense. In the amber glow of the board and flames, Clare and I would place our fingers on the needle and question the ether, begging Annie to tell us secrets.
“Are you with us now?” I ask.
Clare and I crouch over the board, and the pointer goes to “Yes.”
For this moment, Clare and I feel powerful. In this room, everything seems possible.
“Did you ever have a child?” Clare asks.
The needle twitches, then circles back to “Yes.”
The flames from the candles reflect in Clare’s glasses, hiding her eyes. My hands sweat, slipping a little. My mind already races with new directions that Annie’s story can go. Died too young, died in labor, a tragic tale. But, these stories come from me. They are projections of narrative onto the idea of Annie. They contradict the story we’ve told ourselves, of Annie and the plague.
“What happened to your baby?” Clare asks, eyes aflame.
This question feels forced. I try to push past the unease, try to feel with my body any sort of presence. What’s lingering here is an absence, not a ghost. The darkness outside of our circle of light is full of the holes in our lives, peeking through the blind faith I need to have for this to work. Our fathers, our broken families, our chosen social exile, these specters waft in the atmosphere like Clare’s mother’s cigarettes.
Aware of what I am doing, I push the needle until it points to “Goodbye.”
AprilJo Murphy is a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of North Texas. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, Mason’s Road, and other literary journals. Her fiction is forthcoming from Sinister Wisdom, and her critical work has been published in Heroines of Comic Books and Literature. She is currently working on a collection of essays. AprilJo keeps a website at http://www.AprilJoMurphy.com, where you can follow her writing.