Drama Suspense Mystery

“Do you have a gift receipt?”

I roll my eyes and unintentionally scope a sampling of the curiosity shop’s merchandise: overpriced crystals, a taxidermied armadillo, and fat tomes of the occult. “I do not. This package just showed up at my door.”

“Do you know who sent it?” the cashier spits through jet-black lipstick.

“No idea. I did a little research and all signs pointed to this place. I think I was safe in assuming it didn’t come from Kohl’s.”

The cashier scrunches her multi-pierced lips into a wry smile. “Your assumption was correct. It’s one of ours.” She opens the package and reaches inside. “Oh, I see. This is a child’s.”

I shudder. “Whatever. I just want to get rid of it, but it’s not something you throw in the trash, ya know? Where do you get something like that anyway?”

“Donations from medical facilities, generally. However, this one involves more tragic circumstances, I’m afraid.”

“Wait…so it’s real?”

“Indeed,” the gothic woman says, raising the specimen to eye level. It’s a reduced size, but there’s no doubt it mirrors her head in its bumps and curves.

My eyes dart away from the human skull. “Just take it. I don’t need any money.”

I’m already on my way to anywhere but here when the cashier stops me in my tracks: “Shame. Somebody really wanted you to have this.”

I can’t stop myself from responding, “Why’s that?”

“Well, I don’t like to assign significance to numerical values, but--”

“--How much?”

The cashier’s eyes scan the store. “Three,” she says in an almost-whisper.

“Three hundred?” She shakes her head. I can’t believe it. “You mean to tell me a mysterious stranger spent three grand on a human skull and shipped it to my house?”

“That appears to be the case.”

I’m having a change of heart. “You know what? I think I’ll take that refund after all.”

“Dealing in the exchange of such intimate items, we do not partake in the dark art of the refund. I can give you store credit.”

“Ha!” I scoff. Just then, my wandering gaze spots the only burst of color in this sepia-tinged downer. It’s a collection of exquisite entomology, of gorgeously framed butterflies. The giant blue morpho, the peacock swallowtail, the Madagascar sunset. Wings stretched in eternal glory. “I guess I’d be interested in these.”

“Excellent choice. I just need to ask someone’s permission before we complete the transaction.” I nod approvingly, expecting her to fetch a manager. I should have known better. When she returns with a Ouija board, it only seems fitting. Setting it delicately on the counter, she senses my disturbance before the game even begins.

“What?” she asks innocently.

“You serious?”

“Whose approval matters more than that of the owner herself?”

“Alright,” I concede, placing my hands on my side of the planchette. She joins me.

The cashier begins: “Is the owner of the skull with us now?”

Our hands move, though it feels like the cashier is the guiding force, until that little wooden trinket is hovering over the thick black letters “YES”. I try to hide my sigh, but apparently I don’t do a good enough job because the cashier jabs me in the ribs. I offer an apathetic apology and tell her to continue.

The cashier doesn’t miss a beat: “And what is your name?”

Again, I feel she is in control of the following response from beyond:


“Okay, Maddy. Would it be okay if the man with me renounced possession of your final remains and returned you to the shop?”

The planchette’s movement seems more fluid now, as if it really is being conducted by something unseen. However, the answer is not the one I’m looking for:


“Why not?” I chime in. “Do I have to sign up for a rewards card?”

“Shh! Maddy, what does he have to do first?”

I feel slightly rotten for taking the seance so lightly, but it all seems so absurd. It seems less absurd when a tingling sensation runs through my fingers. Now I feel as if I’m controlling the action, as if I knew the answer all along. A chill runs down my spine when we spell out:


The cashier notices the sarcasm has fled my face as I study the Ouija board. She packs up the skull and hands me the box. I leave without saying a word.


I remember these woods from my childhood, the dead leaves crunching beneath my Puma sneakers, the autumnal potpourri of rotting plants sharp and pleasant inside my nostrils. In the clearing was the biggest lawn in the neighborhood, three houses down from my childhood home, which my parents still occupy. Beyond that stood a mighty weeping willow. From one of its more robust branches dangled a wooden swing seat, a heavily varnished piece of heaven on which I’d spend countless afternoon hours. It’s still here. 

The tree swing is faded now, but my memories are evergreen. I remember my outstretched toes barely scraping the dirt; now I have to scrunch my knees into my chest just to get any air under my feet. The property belonged to Mr. Mulhaney, a friendly man who would often bring me milk and those tiny little chocolate chip cookies. Famous Amos. He didn’t have any family, so I suppose he saw the visiting children as his own.

After I finished my snack, Mr. Mulhaney would ask if I wanted to see the treehouse. I’d look up at the wooden cube nestled high in the crook of the mighty willow and my answer would always be the same, “No thanks. I’m scared of heights.” Mr. Mulhaney, never one to apply pressure, would simply smile with those kind blue eyes, take the empty plate and glass, and retreat to his house. I always appreciated that.

To this day, I’m still afraid of heights, but I find myself scaling a shaky rope ladder to alleviate the anxiety induced by that damn Ouija board. I flop onto the treehouse floor in a cloud of dust; the ramshackle thing looks like it hasn’t been used in 20 years. Expansive cobwebs rule the corners and the floor is littered with dirt and shriveled leaves. The boards creak like an old man’s bones. 

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. I feel a strange combination of relief and disappointment, a feeling that emboldens me to explore. There’s not much but debris; even the spiders appear to have moved on. I leave the webs undisturbed out of respect. When I lean against the wall, my fingers run across some sort of indentation. My phone’s flashlight illuminates four parallel lines. They’re claw marks. I move the light around and recoil when I see the wall is covered in them. 

This sudden move causes me to bang my knee against something hard. The pain shoots through my leg like an electric eel’s shock, dropping me to my knees. I find myself face to face with a large toy chest, a normally benign object that sinks my stomach and dries my throat under the circumstances. The last thing I want to do is peer inside, but I know I must. I slowly push open the lid and gasp in horror.


Despite the fact I’m on my fourth cup of coffee, I can’t scare the cold from my bones. My hands shake as I press the cardboard cup to my lips. The only sound cutting the silence is the soft tick, tick, tick of the police station’s wall clock. The detective lays a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. 

“I know this isn’t easy, but we would really appreciate it when you’re ready.” 

“I’m ready.”

They sit me down on the cop side of a two-way mirror. On the other side, a detective conducts an interview with a dejected old man. Beyond the wrinkles and gray hair I recognize those same kind blue eyes from my childhood. Paralyzed, I drop the coffee and it explodes against the floor. Mr. Mulhaney must have heard, because he stares at the mirror as if searching through the past for unfinished business. I tell the detectives “That’s him.”

In the waiting room, the detective asks if I need a ride home and I say yes. 

Two men in black ties congregate at a desk and speak in sullen whispers.

“The sick son of a bitch. Yeah, seven of ‘em. Everything but the skulls.”


“So I guess you don’t have it anymore.”

“They needed it for evidence.”

“I’m sorry. But you really need to know you did an amazing thing. You brought peace to all those families.”

I smile at the cashier. “Thank you. And I’m sorry about…you know.”

“Don’t mention it.” She reaches under the counter awkwardly. “Oh! I got you a present. Figured you deserved something.” She presents me with a glorious framed butterfly of golden yellow dotted with breathtaking black costal bars and eyespots: the peacock pansy. It shines like the sun.

“Thank you,” I say with a lump in my throat. 

“You know, a lot of cultures believe the butterfly is a symbol of the everlasting soul.”

I hold it close. “I think you’re right,” I say. I thank her again and leave.

But I don’t go home, instead driving in the opposite direction and walking through those same woods. I duck under the yellow police tape and climb the rope ladder, this time without fear. This is my last earthly visit to the treehouse.

At home, I sip Earl Grey by the fireplace and finally feel warm for the first time in two weeks. I relax, hypnotized by the yellow-orange flames swaying unevenly atop a glowing log. The color is much like that of the framed butterfly resting on the treehouse floor, its wings stretched in eternal glory.  

November 25, 2022 17:54

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.