The cardboard boxes softened and sagged in the rain, but Teddy Garner didn’t care.
He didn’t care for much, these days. Expected, though, wasn’t it? June had been missing for seven months. The police called their search off, and told him the chances of his daughter turning up alive were “slim to none”. How could a man care for anything after that?
Teddy sniffed the trickle of mucous — which trickled down his philtrum — back into his nose. He opened the door with one hand and held the box of paltry belongings in the other. Any second now, it would give way and spill its soiled guts across the front steps of the house. Fall apart like everything else in his life had.
But it didn’t.
The door creaked open and he stumbled into the dusty — but dry — interior of the house. He supposed he better get used to the rain. The real estate agent had called the downpour “perennial”. The request of a viewing of a house in Litwich surprised her into a momentary lapse of dishonesty.
He didn’t want much out of this. Only the truth. Only a response to the single question that flickered in his mind, like a red neon sign. It buzzed and glared for the past six months and three weeks. It never went out, not even when he lay down in his lonely bed and tried to get some sleep. If anything, the darkness intensified the juxtaposition.
All the other rubbish — the reasons he imagined others came here for — Teddy had cast aside. Redemption, forgiveness, connection, peace. He didn’t expect any of that. Sure, if in reach, he’d take those things. But only after he got an answer. His driving force.
Who knew? Could be he’d get a chance to enact vengeance. If someone ended up linked to her disappearance, of course. Something in Teddy’s gut told him a stranger — some silhouetted monster — had whisked her away. He had fantasies. Morbid, gore-slaked fantasies about taking revenge, about inflicting pain.
But what if nobody bore the blame for her death? What if — God forbid — she died because of an accident? At least with murder, Teddy could unleash his rage on this cruel world. With an accident — a car crash, a fall, anything — only one guilty party remained.
Not that Teddy hoped June’s final moments were fearful — he hoped for anything but that. Please, God, he prayed as he dropped the box to the floor with a wet squidge. He rotated a full 360 and took in the dark mahogany of the house. Rather beautiful, in a gloomy gothic sort of way.
Let her have died quickly and cleanly.
Teddy waited a full week for contact.
In the end, he caved and went in search of an occult shop. Litwich had many of them — ghosts were big business in The Most Haunted Town in the Country. He went for one that looked legitimate — Astrid’s Occult and Mystic Objects. He dismissed the more touristy stores right off the bat. Particularly Ye Olde Occult Shoppe. Something about that rubbed him up the wrong way. As if this whole business were nothing more than a cheap gimmick. A rubber toy for children to gawk at and for parents to grumble the price over.
He trudged his way into town without an umbrella or an anorak. Screw it, he thought. In for a penny, in for a rain-soaked pound. By the time Teddy got into the black, lifeless heart of Litwich, the downpour had penetrated his bones. Each item of clothing weighed twice as much, from his boxers to his socks. A squelch accompanied every footstep.
The bell of Astrid’s tinkled overhead, faded and monotone. Astrid loomed behind the counter, robed in sixties’ hippie attire. The black holes around her eyes betrayed her insomnia, and her attempt at a smile only made his heart ache. Everyone, it seemed, grieved in Litwich.
Teddy tried to return the smile and found that he couldn’t. Not even a fake one would adorn his countenance. Instead, he nodded. “Hi, I’m—”
Anywhere else, he might’ve raised his eyebrows. Here in Litwich, it bordered on the mundane. “I guess you already know what I’m here for, huh?” It wasn’t a jab at her business or her “abilities” — an honest presumption.
Astrid gave him a wry grin. At least that one had a hint of genuineness. It didn’t quite touch her eyes though. They seemed to be black holes. All light swallowed within, all water spirals to the drain. She bent and lifted something onto the counter, already wrapped in brown paper. A tag on the side read T. Garner, in pretty — but shaky — handwriting.
“I would tell you not to use this,” her eyes darted to the package under her fingers, “but I know you won’t listen.”
Astrid shrugged. “Don’t apologise for who you are. Just know this: Our ghosts are never far away. If you’re here—” her gaze flicked up to the store window “—they should come knocking. And if they don’t, ask yourself why.”
I’m scared of what the answer will be, he didn’t say. Instead, he asked, “How much?”
Astrid waved him away. “I don’t need to charge, Mr Garner.” She flashed him another sardonic grin.
“The rent in Litwich is pretty cheap.”
Teddy thought the ouija board felt good to the touch.
If you ignored the purpose of its manufacture. The wood had a pretty grain, varnished to dark brown. Someone had carved the letters, painted their innards gold. A sun lingered in the top left corner, a sickle moon hung in the right. Alphabetical rows — curved in semicircles — occupied the centre. Beneath the letters, a series of numbers from one to zero, and the ominous phrase ‘GOOD BYE’. The planchette — an ornate, heart-shaped piece — had a view hole halfway down.
But it didn’t work. He’d tried all the hellos and is anyone theres and please make your presence felts. Nothing. The planchette sat on the board, lifeless as a dead mouse. He considered dumping it into the bin, as a gesture of exasperation with the undead. And then thought better of it. Teddy slid it back into its paper skin. He’d return it to Astrid. Along with some excuse.
As the day went on — and the light shifted through more shades of gloom than he’d ever seen — a sense of unease grew. Teddy attempted to quiet the grumble with neat gin. But that only gave him acid reflux and sent him on a downward spiral. And still, the board called to him.
Teddy killed the lights and lit some candles. The glow of the flames couldn’t push back the encroachment of the gloom from the rain outside. He set it up at the kitchen table. And tried again.
This time, someone picked up.
And showed up.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Willow crawled up from the shadows and slumped into the chairs opposite. Storm clouds on Bill’s face, whilst Willow’s mind seemed elsewhere. Teddy resisted the urge to look below the table. Some things you can’t unsee.
Now, what’s this about, boy? Disturbin’ our peace ‘n’ whatnot.
His lips didn’t move.
Teddy blinked. At last, he managed to utter June’s name. “Have you seen her?”
Uncle Bill sighed.
Don’t know the girl.
True, now that Teddy thought about it. They’d never met, whilst alive.
“But… is she there?”
Woulda seen her if she was.
Willow started to shift and whine. Bill’s eyes darted to her. He patted her on the knee.
His dead eyes flashed back to Teddy.
Get this over with.
“So, what? Where is she?” His voice pled, whined. “Is—” he licked his lips “—is there someplace else?” Unspoken: Hell?
Not that I know of.
He fidgeted, then softened.
Well, boy, here’s the way I see it. If we ain’t heard of her, and you can’t get in contact with her—
Teddy concluded with the thud of a coffin lid.
“Then she’s not dead.”