I’m not sure how Mrs. Maupin managed to guess the exact last thing I want to be doing on a Saturday morning, but I suppose she’s just that good, because here I am. The old prop house reeks of asbestos and stale egos. The previously-maroon carpet is now brown with black mildew speckles, like a grotesque Pollock painting. The wallpaper is peeling off at the top and the wooden cabinets are wrapped in a blanket of dust. When I first walked in, I was sure I was going to inhale something toxic and keel over, but after about an hour working in here, my lungs have become desensitized.
What might kill me, though, is Kaleb and Natalie’s bloodthirsty bickering. Kaleb and I have been a package deal since we first arrived at the Academy six years ago, but Mrs. Maupin must not have realized he and Natalie had broken up when she put us into groups.
Kaleb, Natalie, and I are each in different sections of the room, scraping grime off objects and deciding whether they’re trash or salvageable. I have the distinct pleasure of clearing a sagging chestnut bookcase, cluttered with pretty much anything that you could think of except actual books.
“You call that clean?” Natalie says to Kaleb, with a voice that sounds like it’s stuck in the back of her throat. As if she hasn’t already put Kaleb through enough.
“Why don’t you focus on doing your own shit,” Kaleb says.
“Why do you have to have such a disgusting mouth?”
“Why do you have to have such a disgusting personality?”
And on it goes. If Hell were real, I’m sure it’d be a breeze compared to this. I do my best to tune it out and focus on getting this hazardous attic clean so I can get out of here quicker. Sometimes being a Non-performer has its perks (for example, not inherently being a douchecanoe), but sometimes it feels like being cornered, bogged down by circumstance and inevitability. Too bad we can’t exactly opt out of being a Non-performer.
At least half of us at the Mead Academy of Performing Arts possess exactly no talent, so we’re responsible for cleaning shit and moving shit and building shit so that the Performers don’t exert themselves too much. Basically, we’re tasked with busy work so that we actually have a reason to stay at the academy. Busy work like cleaning the crumbling prop house of a retired auditorium.
The floor creaks underneath my feet as I carry unidentifiable objects from the shelf to the trash bag Natalie is hogging. The wood sinks as I walk.
No. Not again.
It sucks me down with every step until the floor is caving in and I’m falling and the entire auditorium is suffocating me.
Snap out of it. This isn’t real.
Then Kaleb says, “Holy fuck, dude, look what I found!”
I’m not dying, not immediately, anyway. The world isn’t crashing down around me. I’m still on my feet, I’m still in the prop house, I’m still breathing.
The room is blurry; Kaleb is blurry as he waves at me and bounces like a toddler. I give my head an aggressive shake until I can see him clearly. At first, I don’t understand why he’s excited. He’s standing in front of the decaying wall that’s waiting to swallow us.
But then I see it. He’s pointing to a door. It’s small, about the size of the mini-fridge in mine and Kaleb’s room.
I’m not surprised that, out of everyone I know, it’s Kaleb who has discovered a secret door. A dusty, decrepit door in a dusty, decrepit prop house. Adventure hidden in a grim reality, just like our lives.
His smile takes over the entire room, silences my existential crisis. His excitement is tangible. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve seen his eyes flash with delight—the first time since Natalie cheated on him.
He kneels in front of the door and I rush to his side, coughing when the dust on the floor kicks up around me. I barely even think about my lungs collapsing, so that’s something.
“Did you just find the rabbit hole?”
“Joseph, man, I think we’re about to go to Wonderland.”
Natalie, who has been quiet for an entire minute, an unprecedented length of time, heaves a dramatic sigh. “So you found a crawlspace.” She slides her phone from her pocket and starts tapping at the screen to dismiss us.
I don’t believe in a lot of things. Faith is a difficult feat when you’ve been through what I have. I don’t believe in God or miracles or myself. But I want to. I want to believe this strange, mysterious door is something special, and I want Natalie to kindly excuse herself from the planet.
Kaleb takes in an excessive lung-full of dirty air and places his hand on the secret door’s tarnished doorknob. It’s all very theatrical—you’d think he was a Performer if he didn’t hate them so much. And then he gives the knob a jiggle. We all gasp as the doorknob falls and clatters against the wooden floor.
Frustrated, Kaleb slams his hand against the door, and the wood sinks in, creating a crater where he hit it. It’s concerning that the wood is so old and moist that it has become pliable. I remember the horrible anxiety hallucination I had earlier, but do my best to push that to the edges of my mind.
Natalie snorts. “If Mrs. Maupin were to walk in right now and see you destroying the prop house, she’d send us to the guillotine.”
“I’m not worried about Muppet,” I say around the thumps of Kaleb’s kicks. “She’s a woman of the theater. She’d find all of this just as fascinating as we do.” I won’t let Natalie take away my best friend’s excitement again. She doesn’t deserve that.
“God, you guys are weird,” she says, as if we don’t already know that, as if all the Non-performers aren’t a little weird in the most painful way. There’s a reason we’re Non-performers at a performing arts school. Because we’ve all lost people and we’ve all been pawned off by family members who didn’t know what to do with us.
Natalie’s probably just bitter because she finally realizes she can’t win Kaleb back, not after committing the ultimate Academy atrocity: cheating on him with a Performer. And Marco, the guy she messed around with, isn’t even one of the cooler Performers. He’s new this year and he’s been setting the standard of dickery since the moment he marched in.
Natalie shoves her face back into her phone screen.
Finally, after Kaleb’s breathing has become labored and his kicks less enthusiastic, he gets most of the wood out of the way. “That should be enough for us to be able to crawl through.”
Us? Logically, I knew that Kaleb and I are in this together, but I didn’t really think of what that means. I didn’t think I’d have to crawl through this dilapidated doorway. When I peek through the hole, I see nothing but darkness.
I know Kaleb better than anyone, so I’m sure that when he looks into the black abyss in front of us he imagines all the exciting exploits waiting, imagines that it really will take us to Wonderland. I, on the other hand, consider all the death that could be lurking.
If anyone can inspire me to conquer those monsters, though, it’s Kaleb. He’s been doing it since we met. His appetite for adventure, for real excitement, is contagious. Without him, I wouldn’t have survived at the Academy this long, that’s for sure.
He thumps me on the back. I pitch forward and cling to the jagged door frame for support.
Kaleb laughs. “Well, buddy, it looks like you wanna do the honors.”
“No, no.” I push away from the potential death trap. “It’s your secret door. I don’t want to take this away from you.”
“What a gentleman.” He nudges me to the side and ducks through the door.
When I glance over my shoulder at Natalie, she’s watching Kaleb. She’s clutching her phone in both hands and her face is sagging.
I almost feel bad for her, but I can’t. “Stop playing the victim.”
“Dude, get your ass in here,” Kaleb says. His voice echoes. “I can’t see anything.”
I don’t want to willingly jump into a dark pit of mystery, but I also don’t want to leave Kaleb to jump into a dark pit of mystery by himself while I fling hateful words at his ex-girlfriend. He deserves better friendship.
“I’ll go through the door,” I call to Kaleb. “If I die in there, I expect you to spiral into a deep bout of depression for at least two weeks. I don’t want you eating or sleeping, only thinking about how much you miss me.”
He snorts somewhere in the distance. It’s funny that he thinks I’m joking.
And as I step into the dark abyss, I’m concerned that this may actually be where I take my final breaths. The air is thick, clogging my throat more and more with every inhale. I can’t see more than an inch in front of me, and I’m too scared to reach out around me.
If I die in here, they’d only be able to find my body if they tripped over it. Lovely.
It feels like I’m walking through purgatory, like I’m going to be stuck in this black void forever. I have no idea where Kaleb is. My chest gets tighter the longer I walk. My eyes are itchy. To top it all off, I’m getting really hungry.
I’ve finally accepted my fate of eternal misery when my shin crashes against something.
“Well fuck a duck,” I say through gritted teeth.
“Did you find something?” Kaleb asks. His voice sounds a lot closer than I expected.
I rub my shin with one hand and just kind of flail the other hand around in the darkness until it comes in contact with something. I gather everything within my reach. It feels like a box and some papers, and if that’s really all I’m getting out of this endeavor then the darkness might as well take me now.
A box and some papers. Cool beans.
I stumble through the darkness for another eternity, hanging on to the mystery materials as tightly as I’m able until finally, I see the light of the doorway and Natalie’s silhouette. I think she’s texting while I’m battling death. Figures.
“Hot diggity damn,” Kaleb says, exiting right behind me. He appears completely unaffected. “You look like you’ve been through World War Three.”
I drop the objects on the floor and collapse beside them. There was something wrong with the air in there because my eyes are watering and I’m hacking up a lung.
Kaleb kneels beside me and begins to sift through whatever it is I brought from the great beyond.
“Woah, this is some creepy shit,” he says.
Natalie, apparently deciding she’s not too good for us anymore, drops down to the ground beside Kaleb to take a gander for herself. Apparently, none of us care about the mildew carpet anymore. “You’re not wrong.”
When I can finally see again, I have a look at the fruits of my labor. I was right—it’s a box and some papers, but it’s much more than that.
“A Ouija board,” Natalie shrieks, as if it were actually a ticking bomb. She scoots away.
“What’s on the pages?” Kaleb asks.
I hold a couple up and squint at them. “Not sure. They’re not in English.”
“I told you this was a stupid idea. We’re all about to get possessed.” Natalie jumps to her feet and darts to the other side of the room. I’m honestly surprised she’s not making a cross with her fingers.
My face is stuck between a grin and a grimace. “It would be kind of cool to get possessed, wouldn’t it?” I can’t tell if I’m joking or not.
Natalie puckers. Her face, her body, everything is puckered, like she’s just about to shrivel up because there’s a Ouija board in her presence. “This coming from the guy who starts having a panic attack every time somebody mentions death.”
She’s right. It freaks me the fuck out that death is a real thing, that it can just sort of happen at any time, that it happens no matter what. I hate that death can be anywhere without me even knowing, but imagine surviving a demon possession. It’d be a pretty neat story, at the very least. It’s twisted, but there’s a fine line between fear and fascination.
“Please, Natalie. Just this once could you please pull the stick out of your butt?” Kaleb takes the lid off the Ouija box and stares down at the wooden board with hungry eyes. Clearly there’s some twisted in Kaleb, too. “I’m sure it’s just a prop. This is a prop house, after all.” But he doesn’t believe that. He never believes anything is just anything, it’s not the way his brain works. Everything is something grander in his eyes, even people. That’s why he could tolerate falling in love with Natalie—that’s why he has stuck by my side for seven years.
“If it were a prop, why would it be stored away in a dark, scary room with these weird witchcraft-y papers?” Natalie says.
“Theater kids are dramatic. You would know. You slept with one.”
I can hear Kaleb’s voice cracking under the surface. I don’t want him to break. “Let’s play with the Ouija board, see if it really works.”
“No. No way. I’m not going to beg for evil spirits to talk to me and try to kill me,” Natalie says.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we’re not dying to have you play with us,” Kaleb says.
We had to Google the proper Ouija procedures. Now the two of us are hovering over the Ouija board in the dark. We both have a finger placed lightly on the little center thing that’s supposed to move (according to Google, it’s called a planchette).
Unsurprisingly, Kaleb volunteers to be the speaker. He’s sitting up straight, eyes closed, a soft smile on his lips. “If there are any spirits in here, please make your presence known.” One eye pops open and he frowns when there are no immediate results.
“The website said we have to be patient and welcoming,” I say. “We have to send out positive vibes.” A part of me that is larger than I care to admit really hopes someone gets possessed tonight. Does that count as positive vibes? I feel like it’s fairly welcoming. “This will work. It has to.”
Kaleb tries again and again. He tries taking deep breaths and switching up his wording. He tells them we come in peace and asks different questions. All to no avail.
“Let me try,” I say. “If there are any spirits with us tonight, please tell us your name. We mean no harm. We just want to talk.”
With every failed attempt, my limbs seem to grow heavier, my voice grows more urgent. “Spirit, tell us your name. Make your presence known.”
And then the prop house goes cold. Goosebumps break out over my entire body, little pinpricks spreading over my skin and through my bones. I’m convinced that this is part of one of my anxiety hallucinations. I expect to look over and see a perfectly calm, semi-bored Kaleb, but I’m met with a pale face instead. So he notices the temperature change as well.
I’m ready to write it off—it’s an old building, after all—until a series of aggressive thumps rattles the floor beneath us, like an invisible Jolly Green Giant is marching in our direction.
Kaleb’s jaw practically hits the floor and mine follows right alongside it.
Kaleb flinches every time the floor thumps. “Shit talkin’ mushrooms, is there an actual ghost in here?”
I wanted someone to get possessed because I didn’t think it could really happen. Demons aren’t real, ghosts aren’t real, whatever the fuck this is isn’t real.
The walls begin to rattle and a shudder races through me. A pair of hands fall on my shoulders and my instinct is to throw my elbows back. They make contact with a body. I whirl around and Kaleb is doubled over.
“Dude,” he says, voice strained. “Are you possessed or just stupid?”
The door to the prop house flies open and bangs into the wall.
Oh, right. There’s a door.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me to use the door?
I grab Kaleb by his shirt sleeve and drag him toward the door, but it slams in my face. The deafening crack of the door shutting pairs with the incessant thumping on the floor to form a sort of terrifying song, dissonant and painful. I jiggle the doorknob, but it’s locked.
If this is real, what else exists?
If this is real, I might very well be about to die.
I laugh, too loudly, too long, clashing with the other sounds of horror filling the room. I know that I’m breaking, that I’m spilling my pieces all over this disgusting floor but there’s nothing I can do to stop it at this point.
“Thank you,” I shout to Kaleb.
“What?” He’s shouting too, though it’s not really warranted.
“You basically saved my life when we first got here.”
He’s just staring at me, and maybe I’m being stupid, but I can’t die without saying these things.
I continue. “You’ve always been a billion times stronger than me. You had lost everyone you loved—your parents, your grandparents, your sister—and you didn’t let it paralyze you the way I did when my parents died. I tried to have strength like you, and even though it didn’t always work, it helped.”
“We need to stop talking about our feelings and try to get out of here.”
There is no way out of here, though. I feel it in the pit of my stomach, in my burning eyelids, in my aching bones. People die unexpectedly, tragically, unbelievably—like my parents, who burned to death while I was at school.
At least now I don’t feel as hopeless.
Maybe there’s no God, maybe there’s no afterlife.
But maybe there is.
If there is some sort of spirit in this prop house, that means there is more than just dead and alive. There’s more than existing and not.
Somehow, without me realizing he had even made an effort, Kaleb wrenches the door open. We both make loud whooping sounds because maybe we’re not dead after all, but our celebration is cut short when we realize there are people in front of us. Performers. And Natalie.
They’re laughing. Clutching their stomach. Howling peals of cruel glee.
“What the fuck?” Kaleb says, but it’s more like a growl. His whole body is rigid, his eyes look like they’re ready to turn into daggers and stab Natalie to death.
I feel everything seeping from me. My fear, my energy, everything. I sink to the ground as Kaleb squares off with the group.
“It’s just a joke,” Natalie says. She wraps herself around the guy standing beside her and I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that Marco, the special effects prodigy and the Performer Natalie got caught cheating with, is the one heading the pack. This guy really is the worst.
It was just a joke.
We weren’t in any danger. We weren’t about to get possessed.
My vision goes blurry. My chest feels like it is full of sand and every time I take a breath it fills more and more, an hourglass marking the seconds of my panic.
I hear an exchange of grunts and growls from Kaleb and Marco and Natalie. I hear Natalie shriek. I squint my eyes and try to focus. Kaleb lunges at Marco and I want to jump up and help him, but I think I’m broken because my limbs refuse to do much more than loll.
We weren’t about to get possessed because there was no spirit. The Performers played a prank and we fell for it.
There was no spirit because stuff like that doesn’t exist. I knew it when I entered the prop house and I know it now, so why does it feel so different?