Billy jumped in his skin as the lightning flashed again, illuminating ground-level sculptures of books, hearts and hands, for less than a second. Metallic vases of long-dead flowers cast shadow-fingers against tombstones under the electrical burst.
Claire swished her torch from headstone to mossy headstone, pulling her hood tighter round her oval face against the lashing rain. Escaping strands of mousey brown hair stuck to her cheeks like spidery legs, as she strode through the dark in her black, rubber wellies. She crunched along the gravel path, catching glimpses of names and dates as she went.
“I know it’s here somewhere, I found it at the weekend.” She twisted to look behind her. “I’m sure it was just past that weird tree.” As she spoke, the wind whipped the last remaining orange leaves from the gnarly tree, through Claire's torch beam and into Billy's face.
“I don’t like this at all.” Billy batted at his numbing cheeks and lifted his shoulders to his ears. “It’s wet and cold and too dark to see properly. Let’s come back in the daylight. That tree IS weird.”
“I really like that tree. Branches like contorted arms. Mwah hahahaha.” Jack raised his hands and stiffened his dripping fingers. He bared his teeth, leaning over the shorter boy like a mock vampire. “Not . . . scared are you?” He shone his torch in Billy’s eyes.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Billy took a cautious step back, off the gravel, out of Jack’s reach. But the grass was slippery, and he slid into a gravestone as he lost his balance. He startled and took a deep breath in, placing one, shaking hand over his racing heart.
Jack lost his poise and bent double, laughing uncontrollably for a few seconds.
“Stop messing about lads! I’m serious about this.” Claire tapped Billy on the shoulder and gestured to him to step back onto the safety of the path. “I’m sure it’s near here.”
A flash blazed across the scene like a sudden floodlight clicking on then going out. It was followed, a second later, by an immense crack of thunder. The downpour intensified.
“Did you see that?” Claire pointed to a spot a few graves over and fluttered her torch in that direction.
“I saw it.” Jack strode forward, following the unsteady beam. “I have to admit I was starting to doubt you, but I definitely saw it.”
“Well, I didn’t see anything. Just a flash in the sky. I think it’s time to go.” Billy shivered, rain running down the back of his neck, under his waterproofs. He'd struggled with his hood, but it wouldn't stay up.
“No way. No one goes home until I say.” Claire took the car keys from her pocket and jangled them in front of her torch. “Unless one of you suddenly learns to drive! And at last count you both had to be a year older for that.”
“This is stupid,” said Billy. “Who in their right mind wants to talk to a dead English teacher in the middle of the night? Not even a good English teacher!”
“She was a great English teacher if you ever listened to her instead of playing on your phone and dicking about causing trouble.” Claire picked her way through the sodden grass towards the unusual grave she’d seen. The one with the Ouija board carved into the ground-level stone tablet. There was a headstone too, that stood proud from the ground.
"Yeah." Jack pointed accusingly at Billy. "And I know it was you who falsely reported her for sexual misconduct with a student. That's not even funny."
"It was kinda funny," Billy sniggered.
"She nearly lost her job!" Claire reached the grave and read the epitaph out loud. “Evelyn Blackstone. 1978 – 2022. Master of words. Lover of the dark. Rest In Peace.”
“Lover of the dark? Dark side more like. As good as she was with books and stuff, I still think she was a witch.” Jack had caught up with Claire and was bending down over the grave. He ran his fingers across the alphabet carved into the stone at his feet. “How does all this work anyway?”
“Why are we even here?” asked Billy, trudging towards them, dragging his boots. “You said you’d explain, but I still don’t know what we’re doing. And you know I never liked her. She creeped me out, with her black makeup and her incense and her goth clothes.” He shook beads of water from his floppy, blond fringe.
“You’re here because I can’t do this by myself and because you owe me one. I swear you put this woman in an early grave with all the stress you caused her. I was depending on her to get me into uni.” Claire shifted her torch below her chin so that it distorted her face from underneath, casting spooky shadows across her features. “We’re going to talk to Miss Blackstone. If anyone's spirit is still hanging around, it's hers. Everyone knows she was into the occult. She hardly kept it a secret. I mean, just look at her tombstone. There’s a reason she wasn’t buried in the churchyard.”
Another bolt of lightning cracked through the darkness lighting up the chiselled Ouija board letters once more, and the thunder rolled again.
Claire wiped rain away from her eyes, blurring her mascara into creepy smudges. “Just before she died, she finished writing her masterpiece. But when her family cleared out her house, they couldn’t find it. I want to ask her where it is. I want to get her the recognition she deserves.”
“And I thought we were just here to freak each other out.” Jack nudged Claire and gave her a wink. “So, what’s up with all this Ouija board stuff anyway?”
Claire pulled three, folded, plastic sheets out of her backpack. “We sit on the grass around the grave.” She handed a sheet to each of the lads. “These should stop most of the mud.” Claire reached into her backpack again and pulled out a heart-shaped wooden plaque. “This is a planchette. It’s on little wheels. We place it on the gravestone and we each put a finger on it. Then we talk to Miss Blackstone, and if she hears us, she’ll direct the planchette to different letters and spell out a message. Surely you’ve seen this done by mediums in the movies?”
“I have. And I don’t like it,” said Billy, wetness creeping inside his jacket, chilling his skin. “The movies always end badly for someone. And isn’t doing this on Halloween a massive cliché?”
“Just don’t let go of the planchette before we properly say goodbye to her, and it'll be fine.” Claire spread her plastic sheet on the ground and knelt down. “And Halloween is a cliché precisely because it’s the best time for this kind of thing. Spirits can walk the earth tonight. That’s the whole point.”
“How do you properly say goodbye to a dead person?” asked Jack. “Surely it’s a bit late for that,” he giggled.
Claire sighed. “You move the planchette to the ‘Goodbye’ position on the board and then turn it over so it can’t move anymore. Then you burn sage over the board to cleanse it.” She pointed to the word ‘Goodbye’ on the gravestone. “We start by burning sage too. I’ll need one of you to hold an umbrella over me while I do it, so it doesn’t go out.”
A few minutes later, with the scent of herby smoke rising through the air, the three friends took their positions leaning over Miss Blackstone’s Ouija board grave. Each had an index finger on the planchette.
“I call to Evelyn Blackstone. Are you there? Will you please speak with us?” Claire took a chilling breath. “I call to Evelyn Blackstone. Are you there? Will you please speak with us?”
The planchette crept across the white stone. All three teenagers stared as it ground slowly to a halt in the ‘Yes’ position.
“We come as friends,” said Claire. “We want to help you get the recognition you deserve.”
The planchette scuttled across the board, this way and that. Claire's wavering voice sounded out the letters it pointed to as it went: N O T Y O U B I L L Y
Billy gasped. “What does it mean?”
“Maybe it means she thinks you’re not a friend,” said Claire.
The planchette shivered into the ‘Yes’ position.
“Will you still speak to us? Please, Miss Blackstone. We only want to help.” Claire wiped her furrowed brow with her free hand.
The planchette shifted slightly but stayed poised at ‘Yes’.
“This is so creepy,” said Jack. “I didn’t really think it would work.”
“It isn’t working. It’s Claire pushing the thing around.” Billy wiped rain from his nose. “We’re out here getting drenched for nothing.”
“I promise you it isn’t me.” Claire cut Billy a sharp look.
“Miss Blackstone,” said Jack. “You wrote a book before you died. What was the title?”
The planchette began a new journey around the board and Jack sounded out the letters:
F R E E I N G Y O U R S O U L A F T E R D E A T H
“What was it about?” asked Claire.
T H E S T R E N G T H O F T H E G H O S T
“And now you’ve passed over, do you think what you wrote is correct?” asked Claire.
The planchette shifted choppily to the ‘Yes’ position.
“We would love to read your work.” Claire held her breath for a moment. "If that's ok?"
N O T Y O U B I L L Y came the response.
Billy shuddered. “Surely she can’t hate me that much, I’m out here in this filthy weather trying to help her.”
“We’re here as your friends, Miss Blackstone.” Claire stared at the tombstone. “We want to find and publish your book.”
The planchette moved again in the same, juddery motion: N O T Y O U B I L L Y
“I know I messed around a bit in class, and never did my homework on time, and there was that stupid false accusation, but I’m not that bad a guy, not really.”
E A R L Y G R A V E
The three friends paused and searched each other’s astounded faces. There was a strained silence among them while the rain fell and the wind blew sodden autumn leaves around their legs as they kneeled.
“How did you die?” asked Claire.
“Oh don’t,” said Billy. “I’m not sure I want to know.”
The planchette began to move:
P O I S O N
“I did not poison anyone!” Billy’s face turned sour at the thought.
The planchette moved to the ‘No’ position then started to spell out more words:
I D I D
“You did?” asked Claire.
S T R E S S
D E P R E S S I ON
F A I L U R E
S U I C I D E
Jack’s air of humour had fallen away and his face was as straight as Billy’s. “I think this is getting out of hand. Let’s say Goodbye.”
“No,” said Claire. “I want to find out where the manuscript is.” There was another flash of lightning and a deep growl from the sky. “We owe Miss Blackstone that much.”
“Where's the manuscript?” asked Billy, hoping to bring the proceedings to an abrupt end.
N O T Y O U B I L L Y
“It’s clear that she isn’t going to tell you anything while I’m here. So I might as well just go,” said Billy.
“Claire,” said Jack. “This is actually freaking me out. I think we should all say Goodbye, go away and come back another time, when it’s not so horror-show.”
“Are neither of you willing to see this through?”
“You won’t get any information while I’m here." Billy scowled. "She hates me.”
“And Billy can’t get himself home on his own, we’re in the middle of nowhere. Let’s call it a night, say Goodbye for now and come back in the daylight with someone Miss Blackstone doesn’t blame for her death. Sorry, Billy.”
There was another fork of light, which showed Claire the expressions on the boy’s faces. It was time to go.
“Thank you, Miss Blackstone,” said Claire. “We’re so sorry to hear you had such a difficult experience. And Billy really didn’t mean to hurt you. I think it’s time we went home.”
Claire sighed and instructed the boys to help her push the planchette to the ‘Goodbye’ position. But instead, it shifted back towards the letters of the alphabet and spelled out N O T Y O U B I L L Y.
Billy snapped his hand away from the pointer.
“No! You mustn’t stop until we say Goodbye.” Claire gestured for Billy to come back to the circle, but he stood up and backed off instead. He shuffled away from Miss Blackstone's resting place, in the direction they had come from.
“Claire, we need to take him home. We all need to go home.” Jack’s mood had turned. “We’re soaking wet and scared.”
N O T Y O U B I L L Y
Claire finally forced the planchette to the ‘Goodbye’ position but it was too late. Billy had broken the circle and Evelyn Blackstone’s spirit had crossed over. Claire flipped the planchette upside down and leaned away from the tombstone. But the pointer continued to move on its back:
N O T Y O U B I L L Y N O T Y O U B I L L Y N O T Y O U B I L L Y N O T Y O U B I L L Y N O T Y O U B I L L Y
A lightning bolt hit an outstretched branch of the gnarly tree Billy hated, just behind his new position. The limb split away, falling and clattering against a gravestone, narrowly missing him.
Another one struck the ground just a few feet from where Billy was standing, lighting up his twisted expression. He yelled but the sound was lost in the ensuing thunderous roar.
"She's going to kill me! You both saw that, right?"
Jack and Claire stood up from beside the grave, stared at each other and then back at Billy, torches trained on his trembling face.
The torchlight was soon lost in the brilliance of another lightning bolt, which struck the ground exactly where Billy was standing. The jolt ran through his body, throwing him into the crackling air. He let out a gut-chilling scream as he rose, limbs crooked at unexpected angles.
“Phone for help!” Claire rushed towards her stricken friend.
Jack fumbled for his phone in his jacket and dialled 999.
Billy landed in a crumpled heap on the muddy ground, smoke rising from his contorted body. Tremors ran through him for a few seconds and then he was deathly still. Claire took off her jacket to lay it over him, but his skin was scorched, even the whites of his eyes were blackened.
“Which service do you require?” the operator’s voice was unnaturally calm.
“Ambulance please.” Jack’s limbs shook as the call was transferred. "Help, I think my friend is dead." He shone his torch across the Ouija board grave and tensed his shoulders as the planchette continued to move:
G O O D B Y E B I L L Y