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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                 Claire did not think it was a coincidence that Dennis asked her if he could have a slumber party in the basement with a bunch of his drama friends during the same weekend that Desmond was out of town. Not because Desmond would have said “no,” but because Desmond would have been too thrilled to have a bunch of drama kids hanging out with Dennis in the basement, and would not have left them alone. Claire loved Desmond – he was a good husband and a good father – but it was undeniable that he was too eager to entertain Dennis’s guests whenever they were in the house. Or, rather, he was too eager to be a participant in the entertainment. He always wanted to eat the snacks, watch the movies, play the games, and get in on the gossip. Dennis hated it and claimed his friends did too, which Claire did not doubt.

                “I’m sorry I’m missing it,” said Desmond when Claire called to check in with him on Thursday night. He was visiting his elderly father in another state to help him sell his massive collection of tools. “I wish Dennis had asked while I was home. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen his friends. Do you know if David ever got back together with Susanna?”

                “No,” said Claire. “I don’t know who either of those people are.”

                “David!” said Desmond. “Susanna!”

                “Oh, yeah,” said Claire, feigning realization to prevent an unwelcome detour in the conversation.

                “Anyway,” said Desmond. “What are they going to do?”

                “I’m not sure,” said Claire. “Just hang out in the basement, probably.”

                “But what movies are they going to watch?” asked Desmond. “Are they going to play any games? Charades is always a good one for them because it’s fun and it helps them hone their craft. Is anyone bringing a guitar? You could set my old keyboard up for them. They like singing. What kind of snacks are they getting?”

                “Dennis asked me if I could get them some pizzas,” said Claire, addressing the most manageable of Desmond’s questions. “I’ll probably order a few from Marauder’s.”

                “Oh, I like Marauder’s,” said Desmond. “What toppings are they thinking?”

                “Des, I honestly don’t think anyone has thought that far ahead,” said Claire. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out tomorrow evening when everyone’s here.”

                Dennis walked into the living room on his way to the kitchen for more iced tea, empty glass in one hand, phone in the other hand, one earbud in his ear, one earbud dangling. His hair was still cut short from his role as a death row inmate for the Multioak High School spring musical that had ended a few weeks before. “Is that Dad?” he asked.

                “Yeah, it’s him,” said Claire.

                “What?” asked Desmond.

                “Nothing,” said Claire. “Dennis just wanted to know who was on the phone.”

                “Is Dad coming home early?” asked Dennis. “He’s not going to be here tomorrow night, is he?”

                “No,” said Claire. “He’s still helping Grandfather Sal with his tools.”

                “He’s asking about me?” asked Desmond. “He wants me to come home early?”

                “He was just wondering when you’re coming home,” said Claire.

                “Well, shoot,” said Desmond. “I wish I could be there. But all these stupid tools. Why did we get my dad tools for every birthday, every Christmas, every Father’s Day? The only thing he ever built was that deck that collapsed during Mom’s retirement party and injured all those people. And now I’m missing the big slumber party because of these tools!” He sighed, collected himself, and said, “Ask Dennis what they’re going to do at the party.”

                Claire rolled her eyes at Dennis, who was still standing in the living room and monitoring Claire’s end of the phone call. “Dad wants to know what you’re planning for your slumber party.”

                “Nothing,” said Dennis. “Just hang out, maybe watch some movies. You said you’d get us pizza, right?”

                “Yeah,” said Claire. “Is Marauder’s OK?”

                “Sure,” said Dennis.

                “What’s he saying?” asked Desmond.

                “They’re gonna hang out, watch movies, and eat pizza,” said Claire.

                “No charades?” asked Desmond. “No singing?”

                “Not that he mentioned,” said Claire.

                “What toppings for the pizza?” asked Desmond.

                “He didn’t say,” said Claire.

                “Are David and Susanna both gonna be there?”

                “He didn’t say.”

                “Can’t you ask him?”

                “He’s in the kitchen,” said Claire, making a shooing motion at Dennis with her free hand. He still looked a little uneasy, but he headed for the kitchen to make Claire’s lie into more of a partial lie. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to fill you in on everything that happened when you get back.”

                “Yeah, I guess,” said Desmond. “It’s just such bad luck that this slumber party would come together while I’m out of town. I hate these tools!”

                Claire was off the phone when Dennis came back through the living room with his full glass of iced tea. She smiled at him and was about to go back to her book when he hesitated, seemed to rethink his hesitation, glanced at her, paused, then said, “Yeah, so we might play charades or something, I don’t know. It’s not like we have a written itinerary I can check.” His voice sounded a little off, like an amateur actor trying too hard to play himself.

                “I know,” said Claire. “I don’t care what you do as long as you’re not drinking and everyone stays in their own sleeping bag. Your dad’s the one who wants to know everything.”

                “Yeah,” said Dennis. “Yeah, it’s just gonna be a normal slumber party. Someone might bring a board game. I don’t know. We might play some video games. Might watch a movie, might not.”

                “Sure, whatever,” said Claire. “A little noise doesn’t bother me. If I can sleep through your dad watching boating fail videos on his phone right next to me in bed, I can sleep through you guys singing in the basement.”

                “OK, cool,” said Dennis. “Well, good night.” He gave Claire a nod, raised his glass of iced tea at her as some sort of out-of-character departing toast gesture, and disappeared into the hallway. A few moments later, Claire heard his bedroom door open and close.

Claire trusted Dennis. He wasn’t perfect, but she didn’t think he’d go too far over the line, especially not in their own basement, especially not while she was home. But the way he’d talked to her about the slumber party plans had made her slightly suspicious. The way he’d volunteered the information when it seemed like the topic was already closed, the forced casualness of his performance. Maybe it just meant that someone he had a crush on was coming over and he was feeling extra self-conscious about his family, or maybe the kids were planning on playing some kind of game with embarrassing elements that Dennis didn’t want Claire to witness, or maybe they were planning on watching a horror movie that was more extreme than Claire would prefer. Whatever was making Dennis nervous was probably that minor, maybe even more so. But still, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more vigilant. Claire wouldn’t be a nuisance like Desmond, just a little more vigilant. Like, a 4 on the alertness scale rather than a 3. That seemed like a proportionate response to Dennis’s poor acting.

Claire returned to her book.

Across town, chained within a locked chest in a dark cellar, battered cardboard stirred.


On Friday night, the slumber partiers started arriving at the house around 6, dropped off with their bags in the driveway by parents and older siblings who were already driving away by the time Claire got to the door. Claire greeted them, asked what kind of toppings they liked on their pizzas, wrote their answers down on a yellow notepad, and told them Dennis was in the basement, reminding them where the basement stairs were located if they seemed unsure. By 6:30, all six of the invited teenagers had arrived and were ensconced in the basement. The slumber party was underway. Claire stood with her ear an inch from the basement door and listened. Not in an intrusive or invasive way. Just in passing, really, just out of curiosity. She didn’t hear anything worrisome. Just some chatting, some laughing, someone shouting “sto-o-o-p” in a tone of voice that made it clear that he or she hoped that his or her demand would be ignored. It all sounded normal.

Claire consulted her notepad, ordered the pizzas, and read her book in the den until it was time go pick up the pizzas from Marauder’s. When she got back to the house, she carried the pizzas to the top of the stairs, opened the door quietly, and considered going down the stairs before announcing the arrival of the pizza on the off chance that she might catch a glimpse of some kind of misbehavior, but no, that was too paranoid. “Pizza’s here!” she called, and she descended into a scene of seven shoeless drama kids lounging in a basement, sprawled across the dated second-string furniture as if it had been designed for bodies shaped nothing like theirs. Some of them held open cans of pop or flavored sparkling water from the mini fridge, some of them glanced up from texting to say, “Yum!” The TV was on and competing with a show tune playing through a phone connected to Desmond’s old stereo with an auxiliary cord.

“Thanks, Mom,” said Dennis, rising from the sagging love seat Claire and Desmond had gotten as a wedding present from Desmond’s step-mom. He took the pizzas from Claire and began to clear space for them on the coffee table with a sock-clad foot.

“Need anything else?” asked Claire. “Napkins?”

“Nope,” said Dennis. “We’ll use the paper towels in the laundry room.”

“OK,” said Claire. “Have fun!”

“We will,” said Dennis.

“Thank you,” said the other kids, more or less in unison. One boy said, “Yeah, thanks” after everyone else.

                “You’re welcome,” said Claire. “Enjoy!” She went back upstairs, closed the door, and did not pause to listen for any secretive plotting that might have resumed after her departure. She was done fretting about it. Not that she had really been fretting, that wasn’t the right word, but she was done disrupting her evening, even in little ways, to see if the kids were trying to get away with something. She would probably never know why Dennis had been acting strange about the slumber party plans the night before. Who really knew why teenagers did anything? Especially dramatic ones. Claire returned to the den and her book, which was finally starting to engross her after 200 pages. The plot was heading off the rails. Claire never got really engrossed in a book until the plot went off the rails.


                It was almost 9 o’clock when Claire’s phone rang. She did not recognize the number, but she had six kids who belonged to other people in her basement, so she decided she should probably answer in case it was an emergency. Claire didn’t know why a parent would be calling her cell phone when all of the kids had phones of their own, but she supposed that depended on the nature of the emergency. Or maybe it wasn’t an emergency, maybe they just wanted to check in with her about something, like, alert her to an allergy or let her know about a brewing emotional crisis that could lead to an emergency, something like that. Rather than continue to speculate, Claire answered the phone. “Hello?”

                “Claire Frunkling?” The voice was gruff, short of breath, and male.

                “Well, Franklin, yes,” said Claire.


                “My last name is Franklin,” said Claire. “Not Frunkling.”

                “Oh,” said the voice. “Stupid thing!” Through the phone, Claire heard a thumping noise, then a clatter and a grunt. “I rebuke you! Again!” It sounded like the man was slapping a hard surface with his hand. Now he was even shorter of breath.

                “Who are you?” asked Claire. “Why did you call me?”

                “Claire, ma’am,” said the man. “You have an instrument of very great evil inside your house, inside your very basement, at this very moment.”

                “An instrument of evil?” asked Claire. “What are you talking about?” The man sounded crazy, and if there hadn’t still been a kernel of unease about the slumber party activities remaining inside of her, Claire would have already hung up.

                “One of the youths invited into your home has smuggled a Spiritspeak right beneath your very nose.” He paused. “You have a nose, right?”

                “Yes,” said Claire.

                “Well, some people don’t,” said the man. “Anyway, this youth has smuggled a Spiritspeak across your threshold right beneath your very nose, and now you and everyone in your house are in great danger. The youths must be stopped before they use the Spiritspeak, and it’s up to you to stop them!”

                “I don’t even know what a Spiritspeak is,” said Claire. “Are you a parent of one of the kids who’s here?”

                “I’m not a parent of anyone,” said the man. “Are you kidding me? Me? A parent? No! I’m a wise, concerned citizen, and I’m trying to help you! If those youths use that Spiritspeak in your house, they will open a door for untold evil from another realm to come flooding through, and you can be sure that it’s much easier to prevent that door from ever being opened than it is to shut it!”

                “How do you know all this?” asked Claire.

                “I’ve devoted my life to the study and prevention of arcane practices,” said the man.

                “No, I mean, how do you know my name? How do you know there are kids here having a slumber party?”

                “Because I have to!” said the man. “If I don’t keep track of these things, no one else will! How much good could I accomplish if I knew that someone somewhere was about to use a Spiritspeak, but I didn’t know who and I didn’t know where? I’d just have to sit here doing nothing while knowing that a door to untold evil from another realm was being opened. What would be the point of that?

                “Please don’t call me again,” said Claire. “If you do, I’ll call the police and tell them you’re harassing me.”

                “Don’t tell me you don’t feel its presence in the house,” said the man. “Perhaps before it even arrived, you had a premonition, a rising feeling of unease, of impending trouble.”

                Claire had taken the phone from her ear, but she could still hear the man’s voice. She hesitated, her thumb poised over the “end call” button. Then she pressed it. The ensuing silence in the den fell over Claire like a heavy net. She was caught by it, ensnared. She could not deny that something had felt strange to her since the previous night, and whatever it might be seemed to be connected to this slumber party. She had blamed the feeling on Dennis’s behavior, but maybe the real cause was something else, and she had incorrectly attributed it to Dennis’s behavior because she hadn’t known what else it could be. Or maybe Dennis had acted strange about the slumber party activities because he already knew one of his friends was going to bring a Spiritspeak – whatever that was – and he didn’t want Claire to find out. Or maybe this unsettled feeling intensifying inside of Claire was due to the bizarre phone call she’d just gotten where a strange man who never told her his name had known specific things about her and had spouted dire, insane-sounding warnings about evil flooding into her house. Oh, could that be why Claire felt creeped out now? Do you think? She smiled to herself. Of course. The man hadn’t diagnosed her problem, he had created the problem with his crazy diagnosis. Whatever Claire had been feeling before the man called was just normal parental anxiety.

She realized, then, that she missed Desmond. As annoying as he could be with his inability to just leave the kids alone, Claire now recognized how easy that made things for her. She didn’t have to spend a single second worrying the kids were up to anything objectionable because Desmond was constantly monitoring their activities while trying to get in on them, and Claire got to feel superior for being the less annoying parent. If Desmond were here, Claire could spend the whole evening reading her book with no interruptions, and if one of the kids had brought a Spiritspeak, and if it seemed dangerous in any way, then Desmond would shut it down. Or the kids wouldn’t even break it out, whoever brought it would just leave it tucked in the bottom of his or her bag, all the kids shooting irritated looks at each other behind Desmond’s oblivious back. Or, most likely of all, the slumber party would have happened at someone else’s house and the kids’ activities would be someone else’s problem.

Claire got up and left the den. She went to the living room, then the kitchen, then decided to check the toilet paper situation in the bathroom at the end of the main floor hallway by Dennis’s room in case one of the kids wanted to come up to use it while the basement bathroom was occupied. This also gave her an opportunity to walk past the basement door, where she couldn’t stop herself from pausing for another listen both on the way to the bathroom and on the way back. She heard nothing suspicious either time, although she did not know what a Spiritspeak was and did not know what the use of one would sound like. She didn’t even know if she should actually be concerned about the presence of a Spiritspeak in her basement. It could be – and likely was – one of those harmless things that only a certain subset of hyper-paranoid people found sinister – a subset to which the man on the phone almost certainly belonged.

Claire went back to the den, opened her laptop on the coffee table, and looked up the Spiritspeak on the internet. It turned out to be a game, or some kind of toy, maybe. It was made of bright blue plastic and comprised of a thick, disc-shaped central piece connected to a thinner outer ring by three spokes. It looked like a small steering wheel. In some of the pictures, smiling teens were pictured facing each other with the Spiritspeak between them, each teen gripping its outer ring with one hand. Four teens appeared to be the preferred number for Spiritspeak use. Claire still didn’t know what it was or how it was supposed to work, though. She clicked on a video produced by the Spiritspeak’s manufacturers, Blast and a Half Toy Company.

In the video, four teens – two boys and two girls – sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of an otherwise empty room. Between them, they held the Spiritspeak. “Speak spirt!” said a boy with long, red hair. “Does Kylie think I’m cute?” The Spiritspeak vibrated in the teens’ hands, then dispensed a strip of pink paper from a slot in its underside, which fell to the floor. The boy who had asked the question picked it up and read it aloud. “Not yet, but she will!” The teens giggled with delight. “My turn!” said a girl with huge, cool glasses. “Speak spirt!” she said. “How will I die?” The Spiritspeak again vibrated and dispensed its answer. “Wow,” said the girl as she picked up the strip of paper and read it. “I’m going to be electrocuted! I wonder how?” The teens all giggled again. Claire frowned. A third teen on the video, a girl with a wild look in her uncommonly bright eyes, said, “Speak spirit! Why won’t my mom stay off my case?” The Spiritspeak vibrated, dispensed its answer, and the girl snatched it up. “What does it say?” asked the red-haired boy. “It says my mom’s ‘very, very jealous’ of me,” said the wild-eyed girl. “I knew it!” The fourth teen, a boy whose face had never changed expression and looked as if it never would, said, “Speak spirit. Should I ruin my ex’s wedding, even if it’s, like, a decade from now?” He nodded to himself as he read the Spirtspeak’s answer aloud. “Yes, you should. She needs to pay for what she’s done to you.”

Claire stopped the video. It didn’t take much more scrolling through the results of her initial search to begin finding articles and blog posts about people’s (mostly parents’) distaste for the Spiritspeak. Most of them stopped short of calling it an “instrument of very great evil” like the man on the phone had, but some of them actually went beyond that description, attributing all sorts of tragedies and calamities to a Spiritspeak’s presence in their homes. Claire wasn’t sure she bought into the more extreme anti-Spiritspeak criticisms, but she hadn’t been thrilled about what she’d seen in the video made by the Spiritspeak’s own company. She wasn’t naïve about the stuff teenagers liked to talk about, but what if they took the Spiritspeak’s answers seriously? What if they believed it possessed the power to know the future, to know people’s hidden motivations and desires? What if they sought real guidance from the Spiritspeak?

Claire stood up. It was her house, it was her basement, it was her son, and she could check on what the slumber partying kids were up to whenever she wanted. And if she found them using a Spiritspeak, she could talk to them about it. Not in a strict, overbearing way. Just in a “I’d prefer it if you did something else while you’re in my house” sort of way, a “you shouldn’t mess with things you don’t understand” sort of way, a “besides, it’s a fraud, it doesn’t really know anything” sort of way.

Claire crept to the basement door so the kids wouldn’t hear her footsteps approaching overhead. She turned the doorknob as quietly as she could, opened the door enough to slip through, and then paused to listen. She didn’t hear any fervent whispering, she didn’t hear anyone scrambling to hide anything. The show tunes were still playing through the stereo. The TV was still on, too. Why didn’t they just mute it?

“I heard he wasn’t even going to try out next year,” said one of the girls. “He says he has to save his voice for his band.”

“He still doesn’t know Reese and George are planning on kicking him out of the band?” asked one of the boys. “That’s so embarrassing.”

Claire descended the basement stairs slightly faster than usual.

“Hey, Mom,” said Dennis. “What’s up?”

“I was just checking to make sure you guys are doing OK,” said Claire. Most of the kids had switched spots since she’d last seen them, but they were still sprawled on the floor and furniture in similar postures of teen languor, and there was no sign of a Spiritspeak, nor anything else one might consider troubling. None of the kids had hands tucked under pillows or hips thrust too far forward as if concealing something behind their backs. Claire tried not to look like she was scanning the room as she scanned the room. Most of the kids’ bags were in the corner of the basement near the treadmill that no one had earnestly used in at least six years. Did it appear as if one of the bags had been dug through, as if contraband had been extracted from beneath folded pajamas and a towel? No. Did one of the bags have a strange, curved bulge in its top as if it had been zipped closed over a hard plastic object thrust hastily inside? No. Did any of this mean that the kids weren’t planning on using the Spiritspeak later? No.

“Is something wrong, Mom?”

“No,” said Claire. “Are you done with the pizza for now? I can put it in the fridge in the kitchen, and if anyone wants more later, they can come upstairs and warm it up in the microwave.”

“I like it cold,” said one of the girls. “I almost like it better cold.”

“That’s such a cliché thing to say,” said one of the boys.

Claire took the remaining pizza and left them to their childish argument. She had seen no evidence of a Spiritspeak. Why did she not feel reassured?


Claire consolidated the leftover pizza in one box, put it in the fridge, returned to the den, and looked at her phone on the arm of her chair at the exact moment that it rang. It was the same number as before. She picked up the phone and pressed the “answer” button.

Before Claire could speak, the man said, “They hid it from you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Claire.

“You know very well what I mean,” said the man. “Come on, Claire, ma’am, you have to stop denying to yourself what you already very well know.”

“They weren’t doing anything down there,” said Claire. “I went and I looked and they were just sitting around and talking and listening to music. And watching TV.”

“They hid it,” said the man. “They were already using it, they were foolishly seeking its forbidden knowledge, they were prying open the door. And then, when you went to check on them, they hid it.”

“I don’t think so,” said Claire. “Everything seemed normal down there. They aren’t good actors. I mean, they’re all drama kids, so you can tell when they’re acting. They can’t just act natural. They’re good actors in terms of actual acting, but trying to act like they aren’t acting? No, they’re incapable.”

On the other end of the phone, the man breathed heavily as he processed Claire’s assessment. She could hear him moving around his house, or wherever he was. She heard a thump, some angry whispering, and some more slaps of a hard, flat surface.

“How do you know all of this anyway?” asked Claire. “How did you know I went down there to see if they had a Spiritspeak?”

“You ask all the wrong questions,” said the man. “You think the Spiritspeak is the only power in this world?”

“No,” said Claire. She didn’t know what the man meant, but she didn’t want to hear herself say, “What do you mean?” again.

“You have to go back down there,” said the man. “If you can’t catch them in the act, then you need to confront them. You need to demand that they surrender the Spiritspeak to you so you can submerge it in salt water for one hour and 16 minutes, thereby killing it and neutralizing its malign influence on your household.”

“Oh, I don’t want to ruin the slumber party,” said Claire. “I don’t want this to be a big thing.”

“It’s too late!” shouted the man. “The door to the other realm is opening, Claire! Untold evil from another realm is waiting at the threshold, sniffing at the sliver of light coming through to it from your basement! You saw those articles, ma’am, you saw those blog posts. You read what can happen to someone who allows the Spiritspeak the very slightest of toeholds.”

Claire shuddered at this new revelation of how much the man knew about her night so far. But in addition to making him more frightening, the man’s knowledge also made him more credible. If he knew what she’d read online about the Spiritspeak, if he knew that Claire had tried and failed to catch the kids using the Spiritspeak in the basement, if he knew about the slumber party and her name and her phone number, well, then, maybe he knew one of the kids really had brought a Spiritspeak into her house, and maybe he knew how dangerous that could be.

“I’ll deal with it,” said Claire.

“Be strong,” said the man.


Claire did not try to be quiet as she opened the basement door and descended the stairs yet again. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw that the slumber party scene had not changed in any significant way. The teenagers looked at her, waiting for her to offer to bring the pizza back down, maybe, or to take root beer float orders.

“Where is it?” asked Claire.

“Where’s what?” asked Dennis.

“The Spiritspeak,” said Claire. “I know one of you brought it here with you tonight. You’re hiding it from me. And I want you to hand it over now. This doesn’t have to ruin the slumber party. Just give me the Spiritspeak and you can do anything else. You can watch a horror movie, you can make out with each other, whatever. But I want the Spiritspeak.”

The kids looked confused. But did they look too confused? Now Claire was doubting her ability to see through the kids’ performances. Maybe they were better actors than she gave them credit for. Or maybe they were worse, which would mean this confusion had to be real because they wouldn’t be good enough to fake confusion this believable. But was it believable? It wasn’t as believable in every case, but also, sometimes drama kids were the type to perform the real emotions they were feeling, which didn’t render the emotions fraudulent, only the outward expressions of those emotions, or some elements of the outward expressions of those emotions, or –

“We don’t have a Spiritspeak, Mom,” said Dennis. He was lying on his back on the floor with his legs under the coffee table, looking at Claire upside down. “We’re just hanging out.”

Claire could already feel her resolve crumbling. How was it that the situation felt so different depending on which floor of the house she was on? “Just give it to me,” she said, trying her best to override her rising embarrassment, to reignite the righteous fervor she’d felt just moments before.

“I have a Spiritspeak,” said a girl with a red beanie and a septum piercing. “But I left it at home. Its batteries ran out and it takes a special kind you have to order online.”

Claire stared at the girl. The explanation was too specific to be true. Or was it too specific to be a lie? “Fine,” said Claire. “If there’s no Spiritspeak here, then you won’t mind if I have a look around.” She walked over to the pile of bags and prodded at them with her foot.

“Mom, please,” said Dennis. “You’re being worse than Dad.”


Back upstairs in the den, Claire felt sheepish when the phone rang again, but she answered.

“You blew it,” said the man. “You let them make you feel self-conscious about your mission to protect them!”

“I’m Dennis’s mom,” said Claire. “I can tell when he’s guilty. He isn’t good at hiding it from me.”

“He wasn’t good at hiding his guilt from you,” said the man. “But that was before the Spiritspeak came into his life! Now he’s great at hiding his guilt from you. That’s a clear sign of that malign influence I was telling you about! It’s corrupting those kids right beneath your very nose!”

Claire was on high alert again. The man’s words rang true, made sense of what she’d just experienced in that basement, the way her thoughts had become muddled and she’d second-guessed her intuition, distrusting her own powers of perception. “I’ll go back down there,” she said. “I’ll find it this time. I hardly looked last time, I gave up almost immediately.”

“No,” said the man. “No, you say you will now, but if you go into that basement and fold again, all may be lost.”

“I won’t,” said Claire. “I’ll find the Spiritspeak, I’ll get rid of it. You’ll have to remind me how long to submerge it in the salt water, but I’ll do it.”

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “But you can’t be trusted. I’m on my way to take care of it.”

“You’re on your way here?” asked Claire.

“Yes,” said the man. “I’m in my car right now.”

“Do you know the way?” asked Claire. “Do you need directions?” She was surprised to find herself feeling relieved. As little as she knew about the man, she was happy that someone else was willing to directly tackle the Spiritspeak problem. And if Dennis and his friends got really upset about it, then after the man was gone, and the Spiritspeak with him, Claire could be like, “Wow, that guy was crazy, wasn’t he? What a freak, what a creep, what a weirdo.”

“I have directions,” said the man. “1219 Yummer Street.”

“It’s ‘Summer Street,’” said Claire.

“Piece of junk!” shouted the man. This was followed by a few seconds of something getting punched, then the call ended.


The man’s car was much nicer than Claire had expected. It was a nondescript car, but she had expected a modified hearse or an RV with satellite dishes all over it or a truck with a tarp concealing the mysterious, lumpen contents of its bed. The man himself was short, wide, and Claire had never been so surprised by the absence of a beard. He wore his glasses on a cord around his neck where they hung among the dark chest hair curling over the neckline of his tank top. His heels stuck out past the backs of his green flip flops. The fly of his white denim shorts was stapled shut. Underneath his meaty left arm was what appeared to be a game board: out of its box, folded in half, and in terrible condition.

“Show me to the nearest table,” said the man. “Quickly.”

“This way,” said Claire, leading the man into the kitchen. “What’s the plan?”

“We’ll know soon,” said the man. “Being in close proximity to the Spiritspeak makes it much easier to combat its malign influence.”

He unfolded the game board and held it in front of him with his left hand. Then he punched it with his right hand, over and over, muttering, “You listen to me! You hear? You do what I say!” Then he slammed it down on the kitchen table and pressed down on it with the palms of his hands so hard that Claire heard the table creak. Then he struck it twice with his right elbow. He pursed his lips as if about to spit on it too, but Claire said, “Ew, please don’t,” which stopped him just in time.

“What is that?” asked Claire. Battered, scarred, scratched, and mangled as it was, Claire could see that the board had the letters of the alphabet printed across it in three rows of old-fashioned script. In the top left corner was the word “No” and in the top right corner was the word “Yes.” In the bottom middle of the board, a word or words had been violently scratched out with the tip of something sharp.

This,” said the man, “is the Insight Revealer.” He pulled a small, wooden arrow – also in terrible condition – out of the pocket of his shorts and slapped it down on the board. “Is there any way that we could light this room exclusively with candles?”

“No,” said Claire.

“That sucks,” said the man, and he slapped the Insight Revealer twice with his heavy hand. Claire recognized the sound it made as one that she had heard over the phone several times that night. “Get a flashlight,” said the man. “We’re not doing this with overheard recessed lighting, that’s for sure.”

“There’s one in the drawer,” said Claire. She got the flashlight out of the drawer in the writing desk primarily used for the accumulation of unopened mail. She turned off the lights in the kitchen and turned on the flashlight. The beam was weak.

“Point it here at the Insight Revealer,” said the man. “Point it right at my hand.” He placed the wooden arrow down in the center of the board and then placed his hand on top of it.

“This is going to help us get the Spiritspeak away from the kids?” asked Claire.

“Yes,” said the man. “It’s the only way. Now, please be quiet.”

Claire nodded.

“Now, you better reveal some insight,” said the man. “Or you know what will happen to you.”

Claire realized he was talking to the Insight Revealer, not to her.

“Where are the youths hiding the Spiritspeak?” asked the man. As soon as he finished his question, the arrow began to slide around the surface of the board beneath his hand. “U,” read the man. “N.” The arrow paused. “Keep going, idiot!” said the man. He pounded the board with his left hand.

                “Hold on,” said Claire. “Wait, wait, wait.”

                “I asked you to be quiet,” said the man. “This thing has enough trouble concentrating as it is.”

                “This is just, like, an antique version of the Spiritspeak,” said Claire. “It looks even creepier.”

                The man rolled his eyes. “Claire, ma’am, please. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

                “How is this different?” asked Claire.

                “For one thing, the Insight Revealer is manufactured by Happy Holler Toys, not Blast and a Half Toy Company,” said the man. “Totally different history, totally different mission statement.”

                “So it’s just a competitor?” asked Claire. “You’re saying this one doesn’t open a door to untold evil from another realm because of brand loyalty?”

                “No,” said the man. “Listen. The Spiritspeak is filled with delicate electronic components so it can print out its responses to the queries it receives. It can’t take a beating. Were I to assert my dominance over a Spiritspeak, it would break and cease to function entirely. Whereas with my Insight Revealer” – he pointed at the board and wooden arrow on the table – “I can maintain mastery over it at all times, and still it fulfills my purpose.”

                “The Insight Revealer isn’t evil because you beat it up?” asked Claire.

                “Correct,” said the man. “I beat it into submission. I maintain mastery over the Insight Revealer through the force of my blows, my kicks, my elbow smashes, and the like. It’s too intimidated by me to try anything evil. Not on my watch!” He punched the board with a closed fist. Claire was beginning to worry about the structural integrity of her kitchen table. “In the hands of someone with less mastery,” continued the man, “you’d be correct to oppose the Insight Revealer. It would be too dangerous to trust. But, unfortunately, the threat of the Spiritspeak requires desperate tactics, and only another conduit for spirit communication can counter its malign influence. Only another conduit for spirt communication in the right hands, of which mine are the only known examples.”

                “It just seems hypocritical,” said Claire. “I’m sort of concerned about two of these things being used in my house at the same time.”

                “I’ll be very rough with it,” said the man. “I promise. Watch.” He struck the board repeatedly, then picked it up and slammed it down on the kitchen floor, stomping on it with one flip-flopped foot, then the other. Then he scooped it up, slapped it back on the table, took a moment to crush the wooden arrow between his palms, and then returned it to the board, placing his hand on top of it and saying, “Now, listen! You are going to reveal some insight! Where are the youths hiding the Spiritspeak?” After a short pause, the arrow again began to lurch around the board and point at letters while the man’s hand weighed down upon it. “U.” said the man. “Yeah, yeah, we already know that. N. T? E. R. ‘Unter?’”

                “It probably means ‘under,’” said Claire.

                “Under what?” asked the man.

                “I don’t know,” said Claire.

                “I’m talking to the Insight Revealer,” said the man. “Under what?” Punch, punch, slap, punch. The wooden arrow poked around, sliding over the faded letters without any apparent aim, then made a sudden lunge toward the scratched-off portion of the board, pointing directly at it. “Absolutely not,” said the man. The arrow backed off, then again thrust itself at the scratched-out words. “No!” shouted the man. “That’s not an option!” The arrow was undeterred. It pointed to the same spot on the board over and over. “I eliminated that answer for a reason!” shouted the man. “Do not be like this!”

                “What does it want?” asked Claire. She was not comfortable with how worked up the man was getting.

                “It doesn’t matter,” said the man. “We’re not doing it! I have mastery over it! Not the other way around!” He picked up the board and drop kicked it across the kitchen where it landed in the sink. The man hurried after the Insight Revealer, snatched it out of the sink, and used both hands to smack it against the edge of the counter. Then he flung the board back onto the table, bit the wooden arrow between his teeth so hard that veins bulged in his temples, and finally, panting, returned it to the board’s surface. “Now,” he said, “you will reveal the-” Before he had finished his demand, the arrow had already resumed pointing at the scratched-out words at the bottom of the board. The man heaved a deep sigh, then turned to Claire and said, “Even as much mastery as I have over it, it can be very stubborn sometimes. I don’t think it’s going to answer us unless we do it.”

                “Do what?” asked Claire.

                “Blood sacrifice,” said the man.

                “Get out of my house,” said Claire.


                The following afternoon, after Dennis’s friends had left the house and Dennis was in his bedroom catching up on all the sleep he’d missed the previous night, Claire cleaned up the basement. The mess left in the kids’ wake wasn’t too bad. It just needed a little straightening up, and there were enough pizza crumbs on the floor to justify a vacuuming. It was only when Claire took the full bag out of the trash can by the TV that she noticed the thin strips of pink paper with writing on them poking out from beneath the plastic cups, pop cans, and wadded paper towels. She recognized them immediately. She knew exactly where they’d come from. Claire dug through the layers of trash and retrieved all of the Spiritspeak answers she could find. One of them read, “She’s coming to take it in 7.4 minutes.” Another read, “Conceal it under the basement bathroom sink.” Another simply read, “Yes.” Claire’s pulse quickened and kept quickening as she flipped through the Spiritspeak’s discarded responses at random. “She’s ignorant and fearful,” read another. “An interloper approaches,” read another. “Act casual,” read another. The last one Claire read before running up the stairs to pound on Dennis’s door read, “Kill the interloper, burn his instrument in the open air beneath a starless night.”


                “You lied to me,” shouted Claire, brandishing the handful of Spiritspeak answers. “You lied to my face!”

                Dennis lay sprawled on his bed with bleary eyes and his left arm draped across his forehead. “Well, yeah, but Mom, it wasn’t my idea. I told everyone it was gonna be stupid.”

                “Who brought it?” asked Claire. “Who brought it into our house? Where we live!”

                “I don’t want to tell you,” said Dennis. “You’ll call, uh, his or her parents and turn it into a big deal. And it’s not a big deal, I promise. It wouldn’t even answer our questions. All it cared about was preserving itself. Every time we asked it about, like, who was gonna get the lead in the fall play next year, it just printed out stuff about you coming to take it away and how we needed to protect it. Some of it didn’t even make sense. Like, what’s an ‘interloper?’ Anyway, it was boring. We just gave up and put it away after a while.”

                “You’re grounded,” said Claire. “For lying. Repeatedly.”

                “Grounded from what?” asked Dennis.

                “Slumber parties,” said Claire. “No more. For a long time.”

                “That’s fair,” said Dennis, his voice just a touch too casual. Was Claire letting him off too easy? She wasn’t an effective disciplinarian, she knew that. She’d discuss increasing Dennis’s punishment with Desmond when he got home.

                Claire left the room, closing the door firmly behind her, a symbol of the firmness she hoped she’d conveyed to her son.

                Dennis rolled over and covered his face with one of his pillows. “Speak spirit!” he had said the night before. “When will I die?”

                The Spiritspeak had spat its answer at his feet. “The next slumber party.” Dennis had crumpled the answer, stuffed it in his pocket.

                “Speak spirit!” Dennis had said. “Do you mean the next slumber party here? The next one I go to? The next slumber party anyone goes to?” He picked up the Spiritspeak’s reply with a trembling hand.

                It read, “She’s going to listen at the door for 24 seconds in 2.9 minutes, then again for 31 seconds in 4.2 minutes.”

                Dennis had been very tempted to punch the Spiritspeak. Very temped. If it had been his, he would have.

Discussion Questions

  • Complete, simultaneous organ failure.

  • Do you want to know how you’re going to die? If “no,” do not read question 6. If “yes,” continue on to the sixth question.

  • Over which inanimate objects have you maintained long-term mastery through the dispensing of regular beatings?

  • Who would win this fight: 10 Ouija Boards versus 25 Magic 8-Balls. Why?

  • What’s the best way to tell if a drama kid is performing? (If you can’t think of an answer, just say “He/she is breathing,” which is the answer I’m hoping for)

  • Why is it that so little actual SLUMBER happens at SLUMBER parties?