Underlined Exclusive: Ritual, an Unpublished Short Story by Tara Goedjen

This exclusive short story is set in the world of The Breathless by Tara Goedjen.

It takes place on Halloween night at a small party where a group gathers around a candle to perform a "ritual." Sounds pretty standard for Halloween right? Think again. . .

Ritual, A Short Story to Go with The Breathless

I lost my life the night of the Halloween party. She called it an intimate gathering, so an invite was the last thing I expected. I was a nobody, and she was the opposite—even if our dads were friends, even if we’d played games together as kids, games she made me swear not to talk about. When we got to high school, she became notorious: she smoked clove cigarettes, sipped whiskey without getting drunk, and went out with everybody and anybody except me.

So I was surprised when she walked over to me in gym class while her friends were busy talking to Nick Andersen. I smelled like metal and sweat from the pull-up bar I’d been trying to use, and I hoped she wouldn’t notice. Our conversation went like this:

Ro: Hey, Lance.

Me: Hey, what’s going on?

I tried to think of something interesting to tell her as she flipped her head upside down to put her hair into a ponytail. Then she straightened, and her cheeks were pink from the blood rushing to her face.

Ro: Nick seems to hate you more than usual today. Why might that be?

She started scraping gum off the sole of her tennis shoe by running it over the edge of the push-up bench beside us, right where Nick usually sat.

Me: No clue.

Ro: I heard you told him to quit harassing the new math teacher. How valiant of you.

I shrugged. I knew what it was like to be on the other end of Nick’s hostility, but I didn’t want to explain that to Ro.

Me: So what are you doing for Halloween?

I happened to know exactly what she was doing. Ro’s eyes narrowed like she knew I knew, and I held my breath until she answered.

Ro: Having some friends over. . . . What about you?

Me: Just some work for my dad.

Ro: That’s your Halloween? (She laughed, but not at me, like Nick would have.) Be ready at nine.

I was so shocked I was speechless, but she kept talking.

Ro: Oh, and my dad told me one of your horses had a colt yesterday.

I was about to tell her how cool it had been and how I’d helped deliver it when everything inside me deflated. Because I’d figured out why she’d invited me over.

Ro: Bring the afterbirth tonight, okay?

I smiled like it was no big deal. No one counted me among Ro’s friends, but we shared one secret: sometimes she asked me for things, and I always made sure she got them.

*

After school, I checked on the colt and the bucket where we’d kept the afterbirth to show the vet. I cleaned the stables for my dad and brushed Sad Horse, the old mare I named when I was six that my little cousin rides now. I walked back to the house and looked out at the woods toward Ro’s place. She’d probably forget about me, but I still made sure to shower before nine. Then I went into the kitchen with the heavy plastic bag I’d brought in from the stables and tried to pretend I wasn’t nervous. Nine o’clock came and went. My cousin stared at me over a glass of milk.

“Guess you got stood up, Lance,” she said.

“I wasn’t planning on going anyway,” I said so it wouldn’t get back to my dad. The last thing I wanted was another man-to-man talk about fitting in. Maybe if you worked out more, he’d say. Or Maybe if you tried out for the football team. Or What about basketball? You had a pretty good jump shot once.

And then, like a miracle, someone honked out front. I jogged to the door, remembering just in time to walk casually to the red Toyota. In the backseat were two girls from school who didn’t have their licenses yet, Maddy and Elena. Keira Campbell was in the front.

“We’re picking up Lance?” Maddy asked. Her voice drifted out her open window.

“There’s no room back here,” Elena added, even though there was plenty.

“He’ll sit next to me,” Ro said, waving Keira out of the front, and Keira moved. People always did what Ro wanted, as if they couldn’t help it. I ducked into the car, and it smelled of citrusy perfume mixed with whiskey.

“Hey.” I nodded at the girls. They looked anywhere but at my face. Then Ro grinned at me like my savior.

“Your dad’s okay with you having a party?” I asked.

Ro flipped her visor down and glanced in the mirror. “He took my sisters to visit our aunt for the weekend,” she said, running pink gloss over her lips. “I told him I had swim practice.”

Despite everything, Ro’s entire family thought she was a saint. I thought she was a saint too, only not because she was churchy, but because she inspired worship.

Suddenly she was leaning into me, her glossy lips close to my ear, and I heard one of the girls in the back laughing. “Did you bring it?” she whispered.

“What?” I said, wanting her to stay close to me. When she asked again, I lifted the plastic bag. It dripped on the floor of her car.

*

A few minutes later we were at her house, one of the oldest houses in Blue Bay. It’s surrounded by woods and pretty isolated. With all the trees and the bay nearby, the place should have felt peaceful, but it didn’t. Ro swore it was haunted by a brother and sister who had died on the property a long time ago.

“Come on,” Ro said. “People are already here.”

I got out of the car with the bag. The windows of the house were dark and there weren’t any cars in the driveway. I followed the girls as they headed toward the front door. When Ro herded us inside, I noticed that the house was silent—no one was around. What kind of party was this?

Keira tried to flip on a light, and I realized what Ro had done. Instead of gaudy Halloween decorations, she had cut the power so that the house was dark except for the few candles she’d lit. Their flames flickered over the old walls and pictures as we walked up the staircase to the second floor.

“I lost my signal,” Maddy said, looking down at her phone. Elena bumped into her and then pushed her forward. “It’s a dead zone, remember?”

A single candle was burning in the upstairs hallway. In the dim light, I followed the sound of voices to a closed door. When Ro swung it open, the first person I saw was Nick Andersen. My dad would be thrilled to know I was hanging out with Nick tonight. He had a scholarship to play at Clemson next year. He also happened to be a prick who had it out for me, even before the thing with the math teacher. I almost left the room, but Ro put her hand on my wrist and pulled me in. When she let go, I still felt her hand on my skin.

“Just keep the bag shut for now, okay?” she asked. I nodded. I had this habit of staring at her, so I looked around the room instead.

We were in the library, which I’d never seen before. Whenever my dad brought me over here when I was younger, Ro had always told me it was off-limits. A lot of the rooms in her house were that way.

The library was long and narrow and full of bookshelves, and a fire was crackling in the fireplace. I recognized everyone there. Another guy from the football team, Jason Fernandez, was reaching into a cooler that someone had set on the floor, and Charlotte and Andrea from the swim team were cuddled up together on a couch, and the arty crowd was near the armchairs at the back of the room. It was an odd mix: the only thing we all had in common was our devotion to Ro. The fire threw light and shadows over her face, and I swear everyone was watching her as she slowly pulled her blond hair out of its braid. She was captivating, and for a second nobody moved. Then Jason Fernandez strode over with a Ping-Pong ball and a red plastic cup brimming with beer.

“You think we’re playing drinking games tonight?” Ro asked him.

“Beer pong or quarters?” Nick Andersen slurred from the other side of the fire. His eyes fell on me again and he scowled. “And why is he here?”

I took a step toward the shadows and pretended not to notice.

“Because,” Ro said dramatically, like she knew everyone was listening. “I’ve got something in mind.”

“Drunk Jenga?” Jason asked.

“No,” she said. “A ritual.” She tossed her wavy hair over her shoulder and smiled. “It’s Halloween, after all.” Then she nodded at me, and I handed over the plastic bag.

“What’s that?” Elena asked.

*

Ten minutes later, Ro had gathered everyone in a circle surrounding a single candle and a wooden board. Seeing the art kids and the football players sit cross-legged around her made Ro seem saintly again, because only someone holy could be capable of inspiring that kind of following. They were all shoulder to shoulder in front of the fireplace, except Nick Andersen, who was lingering by the cooler, and Charlotte and Andrea, who hadn’t gotten up from the couch. And me. I was avoiding glares by looking out the dark window. The firelight was playing over the glass and flickering, the way my heart did when I looked at Ro.

“Lance,” Ro said, “come over here.”

I was shocked when she made room for me beside her. Nick gave me another glare from where he was drinking, and Maddy, who was on my other side, narrowed her eyes at me.

“We’ve got to hold hands,” Ro told the circle. When she took my hand, I hoped my palm wasn’t sweaty. She might have been a priestess leading us in some kind of dark ritual, but she didn’t look the part, with her white shirt hanging over jean shorts and her aqua-colored nails curling around my knuckles.

“Holding hands allows the energy to transfer between us.”

Maddy stared at my hand like it was the last thing in the world she wanted to touch, and it was only after Ro cleared her throat that she put her fingers on top of mine. A shadow darted past the bookshelf. I wondered if I’d imagined it.

“We need a way to talk to the spirits,” Ro said, her eyes moving from person to person. “And remember, we only want to be contacted by good spirits.”

“I’m getting creeped out already,” Maddy said, but I wasn’t sure if she was talking about me or the Ouija board. It had the alphabet on it with the words YES and NO in two corners, and GOODBYE at the bottom.

“Start thinking good thoughts,” Ro said. “Or this might not go well.”

Nick laughed from his spot near the cooler. He opened it and fished around inside. “Come on, Ro. Really?”

“Really,” she said, her green eyes level with his. “Or would you prefer that some sort of demon come through?”

“I’d prefer a scotch, actually,” he said.

“There’s a bottle of whiskey by the fireplace,” Ro told him. He strode over to it and then held it up victoriously. “Now, are you joining the circle or not?” she asked.

“Not.”

I saw a smile play on her lips. “Fine. You’re on Ouija duty.” Without taking her hand from my grip, she slid the board toward the middle of the circle with a pointed toe. “You can hold the planchette.” The small triangular object was resting on the board.

“I’m not holding anything,” Nick said.

That smile was still on Ro’s face, and I wanted it all to myself.

“I will,” I said.

She turned her smile on me. “And Andrea and Charlotte.”

“Do we have to?” But they both got up, as they’d been told, and sat as far away from me as possible before grabbing the planchette. Behind me, Nick took my place next to Ro with the bottle of whiskey, and suddenly I wasn’t feeling too happy about speaking up. I was in the center of the circle with the board, and Ro was at an angle behind me, so it was hard to see her without turning my head.

“Friends both living and dead,” Ro said, and her voice was louder. “Let’s begin.” In her lap was my plastic bag. The handles on it seemed to rise ever so slightly, even though she hadn’t moved. And that was when things got dangerous.

*

First of all, the room got cold. I’m sure Ro cranked up the air-conditioning somehow. The fire suddenly died, and I heard a couple of gasps from the circle, but that was probably Ro’s doing too. A lot of people cheat off her in chemistry class, and she could easily have rigged something to mess with the flames.

“I’m getting freaked out,” Elena said. The only light in the room was coming from the candle in the circle and the embers from the fire.

“Sit over here and I’ll protect you,” one of the football players called out. I think it was Jason Fernandez.

“Quiet,” Ro snapped, and the candle went dark and then flared up again.

I thought I saw another shadow move in the corner of the room. One of Ro’s sisters? Maybe that was how she was controlling things. Maybe she’d lied about them being away for the weekend.

Ro looked at me and I put my fingers back on the planchette, which Andrea and Charlotte were holding. Then Ro gazed at the candle.

“Are there any spirits here?” she asked.

Suddenly the planchette shifted under my fingertips, darting to the left where the word YES was printed.

Andrea and Charlotte both laughed. “I didn’t move it,” Andrea whispered.

“Neither did I,” I said, before Charlotte could blame me.

“Are you a good spirit?” Ro asked.

The planchette jerked again, this time to the right side of the board. NO.

“Y’all, I don’t like this,” Elena said, her face pale.

“Who are you?” Ro asked.

Andrea sucked in a breath beside me as the planchette nearly flew across the board under our fingers, darting from letter to letter.

B—R—O—T—H—E—R.

“Brother,” I said aloud.

“Welcome back,” Ro whispered, smiling at the board.

How it worked, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t controlling it, and the girls were acting like they weren’t either, though Ro must have planned things out with one of them. That was what I told myself when she began staring at the middle of the circle like she was seeing something we weren’t. Then her eyes flicked to us. “Does anyone have a question for Brother?”

“How did he die?” Keira asked, smiling, like she was just playing along for Ro’s benefit.

“No,” Ro cut in. “There are three rules: Don’t ask about how the spirit died because they’ll get upset. Don’t ask about the future because it can always change. And don’t ask for a favor.” She gazed at each of us in turn.

“What can you ask for?” Jason Fernandez looked more interested than I expected him to.

“Well, favors are possible . . .” The candlelight flickered over Ro’s face, and for a moment her smile slipped. “But nothing comes for free.”

“This is ridiculous,” Nick said behind me, and the planchette jerked under our fingers again, hovering over the word NO.

“Why have you come, Brother?” Charlotte’s breath was warm against my neck as the planchette darted across the board.

T—O.

“To . . . ,” Maddy read, and before she’d even finished, the planchette was sliding again. W—A—R—N.

“Y’all, this isn’t funny,” Elena whispered.

“Warn us of what?” Jason asked, and I swear he sounded as curious as I felt. This time the planchette went slower. D—E—

“Death,” Ro said in a flat voice, just as the pointer slid to the final letter.

The room went quiet. We all knew not to be scared, but when I raised my eyes from the board to look at the circle, everyone was freaked out. Backs rigid. Hands clenched too tight. My chest felt like someone was squeezing it.

“Who’s going to die?” I asked at the same time Ro did.

Y—O—U.

Charlotte and Andrea pulled their hands away from the planchette. “Lance is moving it,” they said, and all of a sudden something slammed into my head, hard.

“Stop!” Ro said, her voice icy as I turned.

Someone had hit me in the back of the head with an open palm like my dad used to do.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Ro said to Nick, and he smiled at her as if it was funny, just like my dad would have. And in that moment I escalated things. I couldn’t help it.

“Apologize,” I said, standing up.

Nick was on his feet so quick it was like he’d been waiting for me. And I’ll admit, I didn’t think through my next move. I swung at him.

He ducked and hit me so hard I stumbled back and fell, my stomach on fire where he’d slammed his fist into me. Someone—Charlotte—let out a laugh. Then Nick kicked me in the head and my vision blurred, my skull stinging. I bit down on my tongue and tasted blood. For a second I thought I was going to die because the board had said so.

“Leave him alone!” Ro screamed, and I swear, I swear she shoved Nick back so hard he stumbled, even though he’s nearly twice her size. I wanted to thank her for defending me. But Nick was still smirking my way, so I had to open my mouth. I couldn’t help it. That was what had always gotten me in trouble with my dad.

“He has to hit me to feel better about himself,” I said, climbing back to my feet.

That was when Nick swung the whiskey bottle at my face.

*

When I opened my eyes, I was surprised that my head didn’t hurt and that the fire was burning again. Two kids were standing next to it. A guy and a girl I didn’t recognize. They were dressed up for Halloween, and their faces were so pale with makeup they looked dead. It was a cool effect. The girl was wearing an old-fashioned dress and the guy was holding a fake ax in one hand and the planchette in the other. I heard a rustling of paper and whispering nearby—probably everyone else making fun of me—but I kept staring at the kids near the fireplace. Because something weird was happening to them. It was like the flames were lapping at their legs.

“Hey, watch out,” I said, and then I felt Ro’s hand on my arm. I looked up at her as she pulled me to my feet.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” she said, dabbing a washcloth at the back of my head. It still didn’t hurt very much. I quickly glanced around the room, not wanting to make eye contact with the others, especially Nick Andersen. I wished I hadn’t come to the party. I hoped everyone was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. When I turned toward the fireplace, the guy and the girl were gone.

“Who were those kids by the fire?” I asked Ro, wanting to take the attention off myself. “They really did look dead,” I added, and then she laughed. It was that loud one she had, where tears streamed out of her eyes. And everyone in the room laughed, and I felt that old pang of embarrassment thudding inside me.

Then someone threw an arm around my shoulders. It was Nick Andersen. I flinched, expecting to get hit again, but all he did was pat me on the back. That was it. He didn’t shove me. He just let me go.

“You’re hilarious, Lance,” he said. He wasn’t being sarcastic. There was zero sarcasm in his voice, zero. And when I looked around the room, I didn’t see it in anyone’s eyes. “Trying to freak us out because it’s Halloween?” Nick laughed again, shaking his head as he strolled over to the cooler.

“We were worried about you,” Andrea said, coming up to us and squeezing my hand. “See you at school tomorrow, okay?”

“Uh, okay,” I said, and she and Charlotte waved to me and then turned and left the room. That had never happened before.

I turned to Ro. “What did you say to them?”

Ro leaned into me, running her fingers through her hair and transforming it back into a braid that looked so golden I wanted to touch it. “You always give me things,” she said, shrugging. “I did something for you in return. Life’s going to feel a lot different now.”

“Hey, you two okay over there?” Jason Fernandez called, bouncing his Ping-Pong ball toward us. “Want a drink, Lance?”

I nodded because I was speechless. Jason Fernandez had never said a word to me in my life, let alone offered me anything.

I couldn’t believe everyone was being so nice. They were all just smiling at me, as if they liked me. As if I actually belonged.

“Hey, Lance,” Keira said. She was sitting on the couch next to Nick and Maddy. “Come over and talk to us.”

It was too much.

I turned back to Ro. “What did you tell them?” I asked again. I imagined her begging them to talk to me, or worse—somehow making them feel sorry for me.

“I didn’t tell them anything,” she said. The firelight was reflecting in her eyes and making them shine. “I asked the spirits to help you. It was an easy trade.”

She was joking. There was no such thing as spirits, and my dad always said popularity had to be earned. It didn’t come easy.

But it did for Ro. . . .

I looked back toward the circle, where the Ouija board was lying next to the candle. The plastic bag was gone. In its place was a dark stain. I felt a little queasy.

“Why did you need the afterbirth, Ro?”

“Shhh,” she said. That smile was at her lips again. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”

But she smelled of something sharp and metallic—something I recognized.

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