The children found the Ouija board buried at the bottom of the game bin. Their teachers were too busy arguing about peanut allergy restrictions and setting up Reading Circle to notice. No one could remember later if it was Tommy or Susan or Jamal who unearthed the box, crushed and tattered and smelling of unfinished basement. It didn’t much matter. After a time, all the children were playing with it.
They couldn’t read the words that were spelled out, but they could hear the voices. Tiny hisses, like a teapot just before it whistles, but when the children got close enough they could make out the words of men and women, boys and girls, all curling around one another.
Pull her hair…
…where is my knee…
…why did she leave me?
…eat the last Oreo…
…can I come in?
The teachers discussed during their breaks how energized the kids seemed, giggling, delighted at seemingly nothing. How easily they entertained themselves.
Lizzie and Jack met the first demon. They were arguing over who got to touch the triangle next when Ms. Samantha, who was changing the Johnson boy’s diaper, asked them who they were talking to.
“A man with horns,” Lizzie answered.
“Yes, but do you know what color the horns are?” Ms. Samantha asked, trying not to breathe through her nose. This was the third time that day for the Johnson kid, even though his parents insisted he was potty-trained.
“He says green,” Lizzie said.
“That’s good, dear.”
“He says he wants to come visit,” said Jack.
“Well, just make sure he signs in at the front office,” Ms. Tabitha called, dragging Sue Bella off of Tiffany before she bit her again.
No one blamed the teachers. The state had increased the student-teacher ratios the year before from 1:7 to 1:10. No one would admit to bringing in the Ouija board, although certain members of the parent advisory group were all-too eager to start pointing fingers after Jenny Minahan got sucked up into the portal and started calling for her mother through the baseboards.
By then they’d all missed the obvious signs— Colin’s glossed-over eyes, little Megan’s way-too-good impression of an owl turning its head all the way around, the smell of burnt hair, the way the window would open every time the class read Where the Wild Things Are.
Earlier, when Lizzie McCall started speaking in tongues, the teachers thought she was learning Latin at home and tried to teach the rest of the class how to count to ten in Chinese. When Olaf awakened the demon Kristoff, who said he had been murdered by ninja warriors two hundred years before, Ms. Kelly encouraged Olaf to bring in his plastic ninjas for show and share.
“What imaginations!” proclaimed the director of the school, who had been observing, after Olaf’s presentation. She took a photo of the class and posted it on St. Morgantown’s Facebook group.
Even the dark, foul-smelling stain in the middle of the alphabet carpet didn’t faze anyone—after all, the Johnson kid always ate far too many pinto beans on burrito day.
Not until the black snakes showed up in the closet did any alarm bells go off, and by then it was too late. By then the portal had opened. By then Ms. Kelly realized that Lizzie was really levitating, not just showing off some magic trick she’d learned at home. By then the Ouija board had burst into blue and green flames and the small slit in the back of the bookshelf, between the Duplo LEGO bins and the floor puzzles, grew to the size of a fidget spinner. It sizzled sometimes, and the children said it smelled like burnt wimpies.
It’s not important who dared Jenny to stick her foot inside the portal. No one actually thought she’d do it. Later, Ramone told his mother that Jenny’s leg came right off, that she hopped along the edge of the room, screaming, before a clawed arm came out of the air and snatched the rest of her away. Sue Bella said Jenny disappeared in a whoosh. Benjamin remembered none of it and was just mad that Jenny never brought back the Matchbox car she’d borrowed. The teachers tried to pawn it off as an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Then they swore Jenny had never even come to school that day. Then they all got fired.
None of that even matters.
What matters is that the St. Morgantown Day Academy preschool still stands. In fact, it was reaccredited this year, the new director eased up on the peanut allergy restrictions, and the new governor passed lower teacher-to-student ratios. What matters is that each year the children make tiny orange and black flowers out of tissue paper and fasten them to their wrists, spritzing perfume inside that’s supposed to remind them of Jenny. She’s long since stopped talking through the baseboards. Many of the teachers don’t remember her at all. But like all good rituals, they keep her alive. They tell the story as best they can. A cautionary tale for the children to never, ever, ever talk to strangers.
Tara Laskowski is the author of two short story collections, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and Bystanders, which won the 2016 Balcones Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, 2017 Best Small Fictions, and elsewhere. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly. As far as she knows, her child has never played with a Ouija board. Find out more at taralaskowski.com, or follow her on Twitter @beanglish.