"Deliver us from evil. Amen."
"So it says here that if you recite The Lord's Prayer backwards, you can summon a demon."
I looked up from my book. "And it doubtless works even better if you hang a crucifix upside down, Mae. What happens if you sacrifice a priest on his own altar? Maybe Satan appears with beer and pot brownies, I don't know."
"There's no need to be flippant, Sam. This is serious business." She topped up her glass again.
"I'm not being flippant, I just don't believe this stuff. It's not serious, just superstition, nonsense. A throwback to the bloody Dark Ages." I paused for stupid effect. "I mean, who really believes this stuff? Secondary school kids? I rank this along with the Ouija board, children messing about and scaring one another with campfire ghost stories."
"Well, I believe. I have seen things. Things I can't explain otherwise."
I held my glass up to the candlelight, sniffed, sipped again. Mae was clearly in one of those moods; she had the 'back down' look.
"Well, maybe you are right," I said, "and I am wrong. But having a scientific mind, I…"
She laughed, punched the air. "Yay! Go Team Science!"
She gave me a pointedly scornful look, returned to her book. There was mostly quiet. My grandfather's long-case clock tocked, we read and slowly drank the bottle. I fetched another from the cellar, poured us each another glass.
"You said you had seen things, Mae. What have you seen? Convince me."
She put her book down, drew her legs up on the sofa. Her knees touched my leg. She was mellowing.
"When I was a fresher at Oxford, we held a seance. It didn't work at first, so we drew a pentacle on the floor and did it in there." She looked grim. "That worked. We started getting messages on the board." She looked down at her hands. "One of the guys got scared and broke the circle, and we stopped."
I looked at her. "And that's it? A bunch of students get drunk and push a glass around a table until someone pees themselves because someone spelled something out about him?"
"It wasn't like that. The spirit used his pet childhood name. No-one there could have known that. He was clearly rattled."
"Co-incidence. Someone was just angling, trying out different things until they got a response. Fortune tellers do that all the time. Cold reading, it's called."
She looked up at me again, leaned in, her eyes wide. "You weren't there, you cannot possibly comment. It was scary, we were all scared after that. Michael…Michael had to leave."
"Did the, erm, spirit say anything else?"
"No, as I said, we stopped after that." She looked down at her glass, then drained it, and quietly said "You never believe in stuff you can't see, feel touch. But the world is a bigger place than your science. 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy'."
I paused. "You may be right, but…"
"Yeah, yeah. 'BUT'! Everything is 'but' with you. Come out of your bloody shell and try and see the world as it really is for everyone else!" She swung her legs away, stood up. "I'm going to bed. Good night."
Mae storming off was not new to me. Meanwhile, there was a half-full bottle of good Zinfandel and a half-read book, both of which deserved attention. I would, I decided, let her be for now, and at least finish the wine.
I woke at one, stiff-necked in my armchair. Even though the clock no longer struck the hours, there was still a telltale click when the mechanism started. When I was younger the chimes would wake me at eleven or midnight, and I missed that. Still, can't be helped.
I stretched and began to tidy the living room. Glasses to the kitchen, books to the shelves, newspaper refolded. I was about to head upstairs when I noticed the cellar door ajar, and the light on. Mae, had to be. I started down the stairs, and there she was, sitting at my tasting table with her book. She looked up at me. "I decided to come down here, given that you were clearly not interested in coming to bed", she said.
I mumbled my excuses.
"So, do you want a seance?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Why would I want to do something that cannot possibly work?"
"How do you know it won't work until you've tried it?"
She had me there. I stood for a moment, then walked over to the table and started to drag it into the middle of the floor.
"What are you doing?"
"Setting up for the seance that you are clearly determined to have."
"One that you clearly do not want. You're just doing it to shut me up." She glowered pretty well when she had to, and prettily. She was glowering now.
"Okay, I admit some of that. But if it will make you happy, I'll do it."
She scooped her book off the table, walked to the barrel rack and took the writing chalk and my tasting notebook.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Chalk," she said, brandishing it, "for the pentacle. Paper," she continued, waving it, "for the letters."
She began to tear pages out of my notebook. After a moment, and despite my annoyance that she was defiling my notebook, I decided to speed things up. I tore each page into six and taking a pen, began lettering each one.
"We'll need numbers, too. And 'Yes' and 'No'. And 'Goodbye'. Is there another pen?"
I produced one. There was a silence of careful writing, me with my stern block capitals, Mae with her artistic italic.
When we finished, I pulled a couple of chairs over as Mae laid out the scraps of paper in a circle. The table was barely large enough, but it would have to suffice. Finally, she stopped and examined her handiwork. "We'll need a glass", she said, and fetched one from the cupboard before sitting down.
"What now?" I asked.
"The pentacle!" she cried, and grabbing the chalk, got down on hands and knees. There was a minute or two of scraping as she drew the figure inside a circle on the floor. Finally she triumphantly tossed the chalk into a corner, put the table in the middle and sat again. She reached across the table, palms up. "Sit", she said. As though I were a dog.
I sat. It was no good arguing. I made a mental note to recover the chalk in the morning, and reached out to hold her hands. We touched fingertips, careful to avoid the paper lettering. "Now what?" I asked.
"Candle, we need a candle".
There were some in the cupboard; the house wiring was almost as old as my grandfather, and I believe in being prepared. Once the candle was lit and hot-waxed to the shelf behind us, I switched off the light.
Mae looked at me. "Now, put a fingertip gently on the glass".
I followed her instruction, only now allowing myself to feel the absurdity of the situation.
"Now, close your eyes".
I blinked. "Why? If I close my eyes, I won't be able to read the message!"
"I need to invoke the spirits first."
"Okay", I said, trying to not smile. "Eyes closed!"
She took a deep breath. "Spirits of the Afterlife, hearken to me! We are Seekers of truth, we seek your counsel. Come to us!"
There was silence. Of course there was silence. No draughts blowing curtains against furniture, no ticking clocks. Above all, no spirits. I waited for what seemed like five minutes, smiling inside at first, then worrying that Mae would be disappointed and possibly angry when nothing happened. She'd be angry with me, the sceptic. Somehow, this would be my fault. The silence continued. I was just about to say "Is there anybody there?" when I heard a…something. I opened my eyes. Mae was looking intently at the glass.
"It moved," she said.
I had not seen it move, nor felt it. After all, my finger was on the glass.
"It's where it was before," I said.
"It moved," said Mae, "I saw it". She sat unmoving, hand still outstretched.
"Well, maybe you think you did. You've had a few drinks, and you're tired. I'm cranky, and I need to stop."
"No, I did see it. I know when I'm drunk, and I'm not drunk now."
"Well," I began—and stopped. This time the glass clearly moved, because I saw it. I glared at Mae. "You pushed it!"
"Sam, look at my finger! It's not even on the glass."
I looked, and sure enough, the foot of the glass was not under her finger. It had moved about an inch. I looked at Mae, saw her sucking her bottom lip between her teeth. She was telling the truth, she'd not moved the glass. I stopped. Was the room suddenly cold? My skin prickled, the hair on my arms on end.
I looked at the glass again. "Put your finger back, Mae. I want to see what happens."
"I'm not sure I want to now."
"I want to see how this works! Let's just see what happens next, eh?"
She had that look of child in her face. Biting her lip, she looked about twelve in the flickering flame-light. Pretty, and pretty scared.
"Honestly, no. I've proved to you what I set out to, and now I'd like to stop."
"Will it work with just one person's finger on the glass?"
"I don't know, and right now, I don't care to find out! This is no time for you to be experimenting with this stuff."
"What's the worst that can happen?"
"I don't know, and I…I don't want to find out."
"Well I want to know." I put my fingertip back on the glass, looked at her. "We can stop any time we like, right?"
She put her finger back, just the very tip.
"Spirits, are you there?" I asked. And the glass moved steadily across the tabletop.
We watched. Y. We looked at one another. The glass moved again. O. Then, in rapid succession, U-A-R-E-S. And stopped. And started again. U-P. Mae jumped. I jumped. We took our fingers off the glass. Now I was a little scared. I believed her, and I know I didn't push that glass. Then I remembered the flickering flame. There were never any draughts in the cellar. But candle-flames flickered anyway, right? Convection currents caused that, but…
"I think you could be right," I said. "We'll stop. I'm convinced."
She looked at me, nodded, her eyes wide. "Yes."
"I'll clean up in the morning".
I blew out the candle and left everything where it was. There'd be time to square everything away after Mae went to work. She put her hand in mine as we went back upstairs. A little hand, suddenly a grateful, childlike, trusting hand, and it felt good as we returned to the warmth upstairs.
I woke at quarter to nine. Mae's side of the bed was cold. Damn, I'd missed her. I lay in bed for a few minutes, thinking about the seance message. What did it mean? Y-O-U-A-R-E-S-U-P... You arse up? I shook my head. "Nonsense, you imagined it."
I pulled on pyjama bottoms and my dressing gown, went downstairs. The postman had been already, and I picked the letters off the doormat and took them into the kitchen, put the kettle on the Aga stove to boil, and set the mail on the table.
I like a leisurely breakfast. I enjoy the ritual of tea, and toast soldiers and eggs. Mae generally grabs instant coffee and cereal and then flies out of the door. I gathered things together to start cooking.
Hm. Had Mae even eaten today? Maybe she got up late, as there were no dishes in the...Ding-dong-dang-dong, dong-dang-ding-dong. That stopped me. The clock? I ran into the living room. The clock was just tocking, maybe I'd imagined…DONG...DONG... the clock began chiming nine o'clock and all I could do was stare in puzzlement.
When they're frightened, I've heard people say "my heart is in my mouth" and suddenly mine was, as I noticed the cellar door. Open. Beads from Mae's necklace glinted on the top stair.
I ran down the stairs. The candle was lit, and burned to a stub, the table was overturned and the paper letters scattered. Mae's dressing gown was torn, and twisted round the back of one of the fallen chairs, and the remains of her necklace was on the floor, next to what looked like a blood smear crossing the chalk lines and into a new crack in the floor where the table had been. And my notebook was open on the floor at my feet. With a carefully handwritten note.
"Dear Sammysam. Thank you for supper. I fixed your clock. And next time, remember this. As I tried to tell you earlier, you are supposed to stay outside of the pentacle. Yours, Galzeekebull of Malebolge."
Children of the Night: The 2012 Halloween Horrorquest