PARKER BROTHERS – Daphne Bellflower
Karen pulled up to the modest ranch house and parked her Prius in the driveway. It was hot, the sun shone bright on the rolling hills. She sighed, closed her eyes, and took a couple of deep breaths. She wasn’t looking forward to this weekend, but it had to be done. She took another deep breath and got out of the car.
Her sister’s neighbor Mrs. Larson immediately materialized at the front door. “I’m so sorry Karen,” she said. “I still can’t believe it myself. It was so sudden. How old was she? What did the police say it was?” Karen fought back annoyance. “Sixty,” she said, as politely as she could manage. “Linda turned 60 this year. And nobody’s established what happened exactly.”
Mrs. Larson blinked back tears. “And to think, both of them within two years. Who’d believe it?” She shook her head and looked at Karen. “You know, the kids flew in for the funeral and left next day. Who did they think would take care of the house?” She stared at Karen eagerly. “I heard they all hated their dad, that’s why they never visited or came home for the holidays.”
“They have their own lives now” Karen said, ignoring that last statement. “It’s been several years since I’ve been here too. And I only live a couple of hours away.” She rummaged through her purse for the key, found it, and patted Mrs. Larson’s shoulder. “Thanks for stopping by. I’ll drop by later, maybe we can talk some more. I think this will take all weekend, so I’m here for the next few days. I’m going to lie down for a while, I’m tired from the drive.” She finally got the unfamiliar key to work, and stepped inside.
Karen blinked her eyes a few times in the dim light. She took another breath and went to the kitchen. It looked like Linda had left suddenly to run an errand and would be right back. Her wine glass was half-empty, the bottle still on the table. The remains of her dinner were scattered on a small plate. But other signs were there too; the the blood stains on the counter and the cupboards, and the taped outline in the shape of her sister on the kitchen floor.
The police told Karen they found Linda dead in the kitchen. They had been contacted by a UPS delivery driver, concerned that a package he delivered sat on Linda’s front porch for five days. Her car was in the driveway and there was no response to his knock. So he called the police, and told them he worried she hadn’t taken that package inside.
The police went to Linda’s house. It wasn’t the first time they had been summoned there. The UPS driver was right, there was a big problem. Linda was dead. Based on the decomposition of Linda’s body, the driver’s timeline was fairly accurate. There were no signs of foul play, and the autopsy found no physical cause that led to her fall. The police assumed she slipped, hit her head, and never regained consciousness.
Karen methodically pulled up the tape and washed away the bloodstains on the counter and the floor. She washed her sister’s dishes, dried them, and put everything away. She swept the floor. The kitchen looked the way it did when Linda was alive; tidy, everything put in its place.
She opened the front door, looked around for Mrs. Larson, darted to her car and grabbed her suitcase from the trunk. She wasn’t in the mood for another interrogation session just yet; she wanted to get started boxing up Linda’s things. She supposed Ukiah hadn’t changed much since she left for college. Except for the random car accident or new religious cult, there wasn’t that much to talk about. Linda’s death would give the town fodder for gossip for the next several years.
Karen walked down the hall, trying to decide which room to sleep in. The hall was lined with school photos of the kids at various ages and several staged family photos. The kids grew up in the pictures, but except for a thickening around the middle, Linda’s husband Jim stayed the same. Karen assumed the photographers directed the family to smile on cue, a direction that apparently exempted Jim. His expression remained constant, mocking and cruel.
Karen unpacked her things in one of the kid’s bedrooms. She didn’t want to stay in Linda and Jim’s room, and now that she was here, she realized she didn’t really want to stay in the house at all. But it was too late now. She sat on the bed and called her boyfriend.
He picked up on the second ring. “Hey sweetie, you made it,” Neal said. “How was the drive?”
“Beautiful,” Karen said. “It’s still so beautiful here. It was foggy until I crossed the Golden Gate, but it was sunny all the way up 101. Driving to Ukiah is like going back in time, except for the Costco and the new Walmart. Mrs. Larson is still nosy as hell, in case you were wondering.”
Neal laughed. “That will never change either. There’s no place like home.”
“I wish I could click my ruby slippers and be back in Pacific Heights,” Karen said. “I’m driving back Sunday afternoon. I have a client meeting first thing Monday and I want to be prepared. So if I don’t finish I’ll just pay a moving company to do it. I just want to grab a few of Linda’s personal things for me and for her kids if they want them some day.”
“Well call me if you need to talk,” Neal said. “I’m going to Mitchell’s opening tonight, but I’ll have my cell with me. I love you. See you Sunday.”
Karen was never really close to Linda after she married Jim. The difference between being born in 1956 and 1963 was vast, not so much in years but in culture. Linda did everything a girl from the 50s was expected to do; she married early, had three kids, and was a devoted wife and mother. Karen, on the other hand, wanted to get out and have a career in the city. She thought Linda’s choices and values were as dated as those in black and white “Leave It To Beaver” reruns. At least the Beaver, unlike Linda’s docile children, had a little spunk.
By the time Karen was eleven, Linda had married Jim Hamilton, the son of local pear farmers who went to their church. The sixties and seventies did not make a significant impression in Jim and Linda’s life. San Francisco was only two hours away, but as far as Jim was concerned the pot-smoking, bra-burning, war-protesting freaks could have the entire city to themselves. He saw no reason to ever leave Ukiah and his family’s pear orchard. So Linda and the kids stayed put.
Karen walked around the house, looking at Linda’s things. Apparently Linda was still a devoted Catholic. The coffee table was strewn with weekly church letters, a large statue of the Virgin Mother presided over the fireplace mantel, and a large cross with the bloody, exhausted Son of God nailed to it hung on the wall over the flat-screen TV. “Jesus,” Karen muttered.
She spent the rest of the afternoon going through Linda’s bedroom. She looked through her ruffled pastel dresses, her high-waisted slacks, and sensible shoes and decided it would be best if she sent everything to Goodwill. After mentally consigning everything in the closet to charity, Karen turned to Linda’s dresser.
There was gold-embossed jewelry box on top. Karen popped open the lid. “Lara’s Song” tinkled out weakly. She rummaged through the assorted plastic bangles, earrings, and rosaries and saw something she recognized. Karen pulled it out from beneath the tangled rosaries. It was Linda’s wedding ring, with Jim’s mother’s large emerald-cut diamond.
Karen was surprised to see the ring hidden away. It had only been a couple of years since Jim’s last heart attack. She assumed Linda would wear her wedding ring until the proverbial death do you part. But no, here it was under a pile of rosaries and junk trinkets. She looked at it for a few minutes, then slipped it into her pocket. She would email Linda’s daughter Shelley to see if she wanted it. Shelley’s visits home were infrequent; Linda talked to Karen about this a lot. But Karen understood Shelley wanting to put as much distance between herself and her parents as possible.
Karen pulled the first dresser drawer open. It was full of Linda’s bras and underwear. Karen quickly slammed it shut. She wasn’t ready to get that personal with her sister’s undergarments. She dropped to her knees, and pulled open the bottom drawer instead.
There were scarves neatly folded in piles, separated by color and texture. Karen smiled, Linda was always so organized. The drawer smelled faintly of lavender and another odor, stale and unpleasant that Karen didn’t recognize. She pulled out the scarves and laughed. Beneath the bright cotton and polyester chiffon was an old game, the one their parents forbade them to play.
She pulled out the box, and smiled. “OUIJA: Mystifying Oracle Talking Board Set,” it read in a groovy, distinctly seventies font. It was Parker Brothers nod to the increased popularity of counter-culture spiritualism. Karen laughed. “I’m taking this with me,” she thought. Her friends would get a kick out of it, it would be a hit at her next dinner party. Neal, lover of all things seventies, would display it on their coffee table.
Karen was surprised to find the Ouija board in the house. Jim and Linda were the strictest of Catholics, as were her parents and most of their friends growing up. All of Linda’s friends growing up went to their church. When their parents said she could have her friends over, Linda typically invited her Sunday school friends. Fellow sufferers, Karen thought. She couldn’t imagine Jim letting the kids play with a Ouija board.
When she was a teen, Karen remembered that Linda had a lot of girlfriends. Her parents would frequently allow her to invite her friends over for slumber parties, all the girls staying in the big basement with their sleeping bags. Sometimes, Linda and her friends would let Karen join them in various party activities; putting on makeup, playing Truth or Dare, and talking about boys.
At one slumber party, a friend of Linda’s smuggled in a Ouija board. The girls turned off the lights in the basement, lit a forbidden candle, and all placed their fingers on the flimsy planchette. When it was her turn, Linda asked “Is there a ghost here with us?” The planchette jerked to the left, to the bottom of the board and landed on “HELLO.” The girls squealed. Karen was a little scared, but she figured the older girls knew what they were doing.
Linda said in a low whisper, “Ouija board, give us a message from the ghost.” It was absolutely quiet in the room, the only movement was five sets of index and middle fingers quivering with anticipation on the planchette. Suddenly the planchette moved. “G E T O U T,” it spelled, “Y O U W I L D I E.” The girls, including Karen all shrieked with terror. The basement lights switched on. Now the scariest thing in the room was the look on their dad’s face.
“What are you doing down here?,” he demanded, looking at the burning candle. “What’s all the racket?”
“Playing with a Ouija board, Dad,” Linda said. “We were just playing around and got kinda scared.” Their dad stomped down the stairs, and grabbed the board and planchette. “You’re in trouble Linda, Karen you too.” He looked around at Linda’s three friends. “I’m telling your parents. Now go to bed, all of you. Karen, get back upstairs to your room.”
Linda and Karen stayed in their rooms the next day, until their dad summoned them to the kitchen. “I’m disappointed with you girls,” their dad said. “You know better than that. You aren’t supposed to be playing those kind of games.”
Their mom pulled out one of Linda’s Sunday school lessons. “Weren’t you paying attention in Catechism?,” she asked. “You know darn well you aren’t supposed to be playing with Ouija boards. Listen this time” She read to them out loud from the pamphlet.
“CCC 2116: All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to conjure up the dead or ‘unveil’ the future.” Their mom paused. “That means tarot cards, palm reading, and this also means the Ouija board. We’re throwing it in the garbage.”
“This also means you are both grounded for a week,” their dad said. “Linda, I’m surprised at you. I think you should provide a better example for your younger sister.” That was the last time Karen used or even thought about the Ouija board. But here one was, hidden in Linda’s dresser.
Karen looked out the window and noticed it was dark. The sun was setting, she had lost track of time. She was hungry, but didn’t feel like cooking in that kitchen. She thought she’d pick up some food from the North State Cafe, her favorite place to eat in Ukiah. Karen hopped in her Prius and headed to the North State. She ordered mushroom pasta to go, sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of wine while she waited.
“Karen Dwyer?’ said the bartender. She looked up. He looked familiar but she couldn’t immediately place him. “Mike Dunn” he said. “From high school. Don’t tell me you forgot the mighty Wildcats.” He grinned, and suddenly she recognized the boy she knew in 1979.
“Of course I remember you,” Karen said. “I can’t believe you remember me. How have you been?”
“My family’s good, thanks. Seems your family’s been in the news lately,” he said. “Sorry to hear about your sister. We were really upset. It hasn’t been that great for Linda since she found Jim dead in the back yard from a heart attack.” He stopped and looked at at her face. “I guess you must taking care of your sister’s house and other stuff. Sorry, I hope I’m not being rude.”
“You aren’t,” Karen said. “It just happened, it’s still a shock.” She sipped her wine. “Had you seen much of Linda lately?”
“Not really,” he said. “She quit going to church right after Jim died. We were surprised, they used to be there every Sunday. I guess she didn’t want everybody to keep asking her how she was. I’d see her now and then at the Walmart, but we never talked. Everybody know she was a saint to stay with Jim; he was probably the biggest creep in Mendocino County. No offense.”
“None taken,” Karen said. “We all knew what he was. I’m just sorry Linda married him in the first place. I don’t have to hide it from you. Everybody in town knew he beat the hell out of her.” Karen looked at Mike. “I know your folks tried to help her out,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“If there’s anything I can do for you,” he said, “let me know. Your sister was a good lady who married a piece of shit. I’m sorry about what happened.”
A waitress appeared with her order in a plastic bag. “Thanks Mike,” she said. “It was nice to see you. Say hi to your folks for me.” She paid the waitress, grabbed a handful of paper napkins and left.
Karen stopped at a little grocery store and bought a bottle of white wine. She drove back to Linda’s place, still thinking about Mike Dunn. She could go for weeks in San Francisco and never run into anyone she knew. In Ukiah, people from her past popped up with alarming regularity. She liked her home town, but she couldn’t wait to get back to the anonymity of the city.
Karen wasn’t about to eat in the kitchen, so she sat down on the living room sofa. She ate her pasta and drank a glass of wine in silence. The cable was disconnected, so watching TV wasn’t an option. Jesus stared at her sadly from his perch on the cross, in plastic eternal pain. INRI indeed. She looked at the Ouija board on the coffee table, popped open the lid and started reading the directions.
“Ah, yes,” Karen read on the box, “the Ouija board will reveal all.” She read the instructions on the underside of the lid. They were fairly short; apparently communicating with the spirit world was simple. Remove the felt from the planchette feet, check. Use the Ouija board in a dark room, check. Be open and respectful to the spirit world, check. Never use the Ouija board alone. Now there was a obstacle. She laughed, and decided she could manage.
Karen put the planchette on the board. She looked around, found a candle next to the Virgin Mary on the mantel, and lit it. Shadows flickered in the dusty room. She put both her index and middle fingers on the planchette, and stared through the little glass hole on the top. “Is there anyone here?” she asked, giggling. She felt like she was nine again, playing with Linda and her friends.
“Is there anyone here from the beyond?” she demanded in a sterner voice, drawing on years of watching cheesy horror films with Neal. “Speak to me spirit. Is anyone here?” The planchette jerked to the top of the board, and hovered over the YES. Karen pulled her hands away in surprise. She poured herself another glass of wine. Her subconscious must be working overtime tonight.
She took a sip of wine and stared at the board. Karen positioned her fingers again on the planchette, lightly this time. “Spirit, make your presence known,” she said out loud. “Are you a friendly spirit?
There was no waiting.. The planchette immediately lurched to the right and stopped at NO. “Why are you here?” Karen asked. “Are you someone I know?” YES the planchette responded. “Who are you?” she demanded, “I want you to reveal yourself.” The planchette was still. She waited for a few minutes, got up and poured herself another glass of wine.
Karen thought a few minutes about Linda. She wondered what it would have been like if Linda had left both Ukiah and Jim behind. In late night conversations, Linda explained to Karen that this wasn’t an option because of the kids. Linda never went to college, and she would insist she had no practical job skills. Maybe she felt trapped, with no alternatives but the life she chose for herself at nineteen.
There were a lot of late night phone conversations when Karen talked to Linda about leaving Jim. Linda would agree at first, but then would insist he was a good father and a good provider. Karen would insist he was an abuser, the kind who would never change. Linda always told Karen, at the end of those calls, that she would give Jim one more chance. If he ever hit her again, she would leave. And he always hit her again.
One by one their kids left home, never to return. Except for those late night calls, Linda was on her own. Karen knew she should have tried harder with Linda, had Neal help her move out of that house. But Karen never could convince her to leave.
“Oh God,” she said, her face in her hands. “I never meant to abandon Linda, to leave her alone with that asshole.” Jesus stared down at her silently, acrylic blood dripping down from his plastic crown of thorns.
She sat back down in front of the board. Her subconscious mind was far more active then she realized. “Spirit, are you my sister Linda?,” she asked, smiling. NO revealed the planchette. “Well then, who are you?,” Linda demanded. The planchette jerked back and forth around the board. G E T O U T.
“Did Linda use this Ouija board,” she asked. YES. “Did Linda use this board on the night she died?” YES. “Do you know how she died?” YES. Karen took her fingers off the planchette. She obviously drank too much wine on an empty stomach. The planchette flew off the coffee table and skittered across the living room floor. “This is getting ridiculous,” Karen said out loud. Her voice sounded strange and hollow in the empty living room.
She was angry at herself now. She grabbed the Ouija board and the planchette and set it on the kitchen table. “Who are you,” she asked. “Did you hurt my sister.” YES. “Why,” she asked grimly, “Why the hell would you do that?” G E T O U T.
Karen thought a couple of minutes. All logic was abandoned at this point. She poured the last of the wine into her glass. “Are you Jim,” she asked. The planchette jerked to the left. YES.
“Didn’t you hurt her enough before you died,” she said furiously. “Didn’t you ruin her life and your kids lives too? They all hated you.” She took a deep breath, and realized she was talking to a game from the seventies. Whatever. She was dealing with her grief in full California mode, and decided to run with it. She made a mental note to call her therapist for an emergency appointment the minute she got back to San Francisco.
“What happened,” she asked the board angrily. “What happened to Linda?” I K N O C K E D H E R O U T F O R G O O D.
Karen shoved the board and her wine glass off the table. The old plastic planchette and the glass shattered on the kitchen floor. Karen wasn’t about to pick up this new mess. It wasn’t her fault. Maybe she should have tried harder, but she was no avenging angel and maybe Linda didn’t want to be saved. She guessed Linda stared at plastic suffering Jesus on his cross every night and figured he had it worse than she ever did.
Karen grabbed her things and ran to the house next door. She rang Mrs. Larson’s bell. The porch light turned on and the door opened as far as the chain would permit.
“Mrs. Larson,” she asked. “Can I spend the night here? I’m too tired to drive back.”
“Of course you can dear, ” Mrs. Larson said, her eyes searching Karen’s face. “Why didn’t you stay at Linda’s? Did something spook you? You’ll have to tell me all about it.” Karen took a deep breath and walked inside.